Jim Laspesa enlisted in the United States Air Force in 1971 toward what would be the end of the Vietnam War, but had no way of knowing he would eventually serve in an area connected to his family’s own history of service.
Mr. Laspesa, who earned the rank of Sergeant during his two years of service overseas and two more in the Air Force reserves, was stationed at the Clark Air Force Base on the Luzon Island in the Philippines. Clark Air Force Base is a mile from where his uncle, Lieutenant Arthur Browngardt Jr., crashed on the morning of January 7, 1945. Lt. Browngardt’s bomber, which was called The Sag Harbor Express, was hit by Japanese anti-aircraft fire while flying over Clark Field, hitting the Holy Rosary Cathedral before crashing nearby, killing the entire crew.
“I just thought, ‘How ironic,’” said Mr. Laspesa, who is known as “Jim” was named Arthur James Laspesa after his uncle. “My uncle was in the Philippines and was probably trying to bomb the base I was eventually stationed at and went down in a cathedral probably within a mile of where my off-base housing was.”
While Mr. Laspesa’s patriotism was partially informed by his family’s history of service in the armed forces, the North Haven resident and longtime East End architect will focus most of his talk on Monday as the featured speaker of the Memorial Day services in Sag Harbor on “Operation Homecoming” at Clark Air Force Base. “Operation Homecoming” resulted in the return of 591 prisoners of war (POW) held by the North Vietnamese following the January 1973 cease fire and eventual peace treaty. The POWs were brought to Clark Air Force Base, where the young Sag Harbor native was stationed in the base hospital.
“I was always very patriotic,” said Mr. Laspesa. “When I was in college in the 1960s, I never even considered being a draft dodger. I didn’t consider going to Canada. I did go to one conscientious objector meeting and I just thought, ‘I can’t do this.’ I always had to fight for what I earned in this life, even in high school sports, and it just made me a determined individual.”
During his years at Pierson, Mr. Laspesa was a driven student but also a talented baseball player who was scouted by the Milwaukee Braves beginning in his sophomore year of high school. “Then my senior year, I had my last try and they offered me a contract to the minor leagues,” he remembered.
But it was 1966 — the Vietnam War was raging, and the draft was in effect. Wary of the draft, Mr. Laspesa knew he would have to turn down the Braves and pursue his degree in architecture at the New York Institute of Technology. He graduated in 1970 and spent a year teaching mechanical drawing, algebra and physical education at St. Michael’s High School in New Jersey. He was drafted in 1971 and enlisted the same year in the Air Force before being shipped to Clark Air Force Base. Mr. Laspesa served as a medical administrative biometrics specialist in the base’s hospital registrar’s office.
This put the young sergeant on the front lines of “Operation Homecoming,” helping to process three waves of returnees, starting with those who had been imprisoned the longest in North Vietnam.
“My job before they returned was to keep all the biometrics — the analytics — of the whole hospital,” said Mr. Laspesa. “We tracked in-patient, out-patient visits, surgeries, pregnancies — everything I accumulated was sent off to Pacific Air Command and they based their budget for that hospital on that information. Then the returnees came back, and I helped process them, interviewed them.”
Mr. Laspesa interviewed then Lieutenant Commander John McCain, who was shot down over Hanoi in 1967, and was aware when Commander James Stockdale, the senior naval officer held captive in Hanoi who led the POW resistance, was back on the base. The interviews were not medical in nature, but more as a means of reintroduction — some returnees had been held in North Vietnam for as long as seven years.
“We were there to be a presence,” said Mr. Laspesa. Some of “Operation Homecoming” was jubilant — celebratory moments of freedom between servicemen — but there was hardship, too, whether it was medical issues resulting from captivity and, in some cases, torture, or being debriefed on changes in life back home in the United States, and not always for the better.
Mr. Laspesa said he would save the ending of his story about “Operation Homecoming” for the crowd gathered to remember those lost in war on Monday at Marine Park on Bay Street. It was, as it is for many, he said, an experience that changes a person.
“When I graduated college and finished teaching that one year, I thought I was very mature and I was,” he said. “When I got out of the service I thought, ‘Forget it.’ I was really mature then.”
As for Monday’s address, Mr. Laspesa said he hopes that above all else it will help educate residents on the realities of war, the importance of service and what happened during the Vietnam War in the hopes of bringing a message of unity to the observance and support for veterans of all wars.
“I thought about what it is I can offer the crowd,” he said, reflecting on the day he was offered the ability to speak during the observance. “That was when I realized I can really use this as an educational tool to maybe bring this country together a little bit more around something we can all get behind.”