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Honor Guards : For Those Touched by War, Memorial Day Is Chance to Remember : Always a Marine

“Hey, in real life I’m a banker,” said Jay Morales, laughing.

But Memorial Day reminds him that he’ll always be a Marine.

Morales, 45, hasn’t seen battle since he ended 56 months of combat and three tours of duty in Vietnam. He came home, bought a house near the sea in Huntington Beach, became a successful money man and watched his six children grow. Life goes on. And many of his days are Memorial Days.

On a recent rainy day in Washington, D.C., for example, he concluded business with a few hours to spare and decided to visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which he hadn’t seen since 1984.

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“All of a sudden the sun came out. It was bright and shiny as I started walking down the path, next to the slabs, following the names. I had been there before, but we went as a group, and we had a lot of preparation and nurturing.

“Now I was in a coat and tie, a 45-year-old adult on a business trip. I wasn’t prepared for what happened to me.”

Overcome by emotion, Morales paused before going on.

“I am walking by the names. I remember Vern and MacNulty and Don Sperl. There was a fellow on my last tour that I suddenly remembered very vividly when I saw his name. I visualized his face, his smile, his freckles and how loose he was. He was a real good kid. I didn’t expect to see him there, though I knew he was killed. I saw (the names of) John Hernandez, Staff Sgt. Jack Russell, all guys my age. And they would be where I am today. But they are on the wall.”

Morales says the visit hit him “like such a ton of bricks that I couldn’t hold my emotions in. I came back to L.A. and was sick for a whole week.”

He, his wife, Lorraine, and veterans from Post 8 of the Veterans of Foreign Wars--a post he helped found--will attend Memorial Day ceremonies at Riverside National Cemetery near March Air Force Base. “It’s a beautiful spot for remembering,” he said.

A Bataan Survivor

The sun was brutal, the men were dying, the march seemed endless. It took nine days for about 10,000 captive Americans and about 25,000 Filipinos to trudge from Bataan to San Fernando in the Philippines, in what came to be known as the “Bataan Death March” of World War II.

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Andrew Aquila, now 72 and living in Northridge, survived. And so does the horror of the march.

“The enemy guards showed no mercy,” he recalled. “We were all so weak, sick, thirsty. We came to an artesian well, and anyone who tried to get water was either bayoneted or shot. A young fellow with malaria had asked us to help him walk. He was crying hysterically for water. So when we got to the well we sat him on the ground and decided to take a chance. But the guards saw. Instead of killing us, they walked up and fired at him--point blank. Then they kicked him to the side.”

Aquila excused himself for crying as he talked. “Maybe 600 Americans were killed on the march, and when we got to San Fernando they loaded us on box cars and sent us to O’Donnell camp in Capas in the Philippines. Our boys died there at the rate of 50 or 60 a day. We couldn’t bury them fast enough so the bodies rotted, and when we picked them up the flesh stuck to our hands.” Aquila’s words were again muffled by his tears.

Aquila celebrates Memorial Day with fellow members of the Disabled American Veterans, Chapter 73, of which both he and his wife are past commanders. Again this year, he will go to the chapter’s five-acre park in Woodland Hills, which Aquila says is maintained as “a memorial to our fallen comrades in all theaters and all wars.”

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