2017-11-09 / Front Page

Local man recalls his time in the military during 1950s


Shown above is Les James — then and now. At left is a photo taken of James while he was serving in Korea. It’s the only photo he has because the family home was destroyed by a fire. At right is James today, at age 82. Shown above is Les James — then and now. At left is a photo taken of James while he was serving in Korea. It’s the only photo he has because the family home was destroyed by a fire. At right is James today, at age 82. Being a military veteran means different experiences for those who serve.

For Les James of Mariposa, now 82, going into the U.S. Marines in 1954, just after high school, was an eye-opening experience.

As a kid from Ahwahnee, James was a little insulated.

“I was a country boy not knowing anything,” said James, who now lives in Mariposa. “Everything was new to me.”

James said it was his intention to join the U.S. Navy. His brother was in the Navy and “I thought he looked sharp in his uniform.”

But, when he went to the recruiting office, James said he was told there was a six month wait.

However, just next door at the U.S. Marines office, there was no wait.

James went right over and joined the Marines.

“It was pretty tough,” said James.

In those days, he said superiors could do just about anything to the green-horned recruits.

“They could hit you. They could belittle you. They cussed you out,” said James. “They don’t do those things these days.”

For two weeks, James was sent to Camp Pendleton for train- ing as in infantry soldier. He was trained in small arms and ended working with 81 mm mortars.

Since it was peace time, most of the time was spent training. He was shipped to Japan just a couple of weeks after going to Camp Pendleton in Southern California.

In 1954, it was just a year after the pact was signed to end the Korean Conflict. James said they were told the 1st Marine Division was still in Korea and they, as part of the 3rd Marine Division, were going to replace that group.

But, he said, something changed.

In October 1954, he said they were shipped to Hawaii, where he served most of his time in the military. During the last six months of his Marine career, he was a military policeman back at Camp Pendleton.

James admits serving in Hawaii wasn’t the worst assignment he’s ever faced.

However, he also knew because the war in Korea had just ended that tensions remained high and another conflict could easily break out.

“It was nerve wracking,” said James. “I had never had anyone shooting at me.”

But besides those thoughts, James, a Native American, also experienced something else for the first time — prejudice.

“You can see the difference,” he said about how people were treated in the military.

Though he said “we all got along,” James added the racism aspect was evident.

He said the African Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans were all treated differently by some in the service.

“It is the first I ever heard of prejudice,” said James. “I never knew that until I got to boot camp. I didn’t know what to think of prejudice.”

He said growing up, they “lived in Ahwahnee. We were all family.”

For James, he said there hasn’t been a lot of progress even since that time.

“No,” he said when asked if, as a country, we have progressed.

Once James got out of the Marines, he did some logging for a while and then went to work for the National Park Service.

He went to work in the sign department at Yosemite National Park, eventually becoming the supervisor.

“I had the best job in the Park,” said James.

He said in the hot weather, and during the winter, the sign workers were able to stay indoors and work on signs. Then, when the weather was conducive, they traveled the entire park replacing signs.

Back then, they were all wooden signs. By 1970, the wooden signs were being replaced by metal signs.

He spent 30 years at the Park, retiring in 1991.

“I’ve seen a lot of change,” said James. “They commercialized it. There is a lot of cement in the valley.”

But one area where commercialization is not happening, at least for James, is in the Camp 4 area of the Park where the Native American community is building a roundhouse in the old Indian village.

It was 1977, he said, when they requested the park service give them the old building back. Eventually, work began, however, progress was halted, said James, because of issues by then-Superintendent Don Neubacher. He effectively halted progress for the past seven years, said James.

Now, however, with new Park leadership, work has resumed on constructing the roundhouse. James is hopeful they can finish the work by 2019. He said the construction is “traditional,” meaning no rebar and other materials. They also have engineers working to ensure sound construction practices in a traditional manner.

The goal is to have an area where they can educate the public about Native Americans, including traditions and how they lived.

“That is our dream,” said James.

James was one of the founders of the American Indian Council of Mariposa County and said he enjoys working on Native American related issues and educating the public.

James has four children, three daughters who live in the Mariposa area and a son who lives in Arizona.

He remains an active member of the American Legion in Mariposa.

One thing James did discuss is the current state of affairs when it relates to Korea. Even though he served more than 60 years ago, the issue of North Korea remains one of the biggest concerns in the world.

“It is scary,” said James. “It probably could be the end of the world. And it is a small group of people that controls everything. It’s family.”

Unfortunately, it’s not the kind of family James knew growing up in Ahwahnee.

Greg Little is Editor of the Mariposa Gazette and can be reached at greg@mariposagazette.com.

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