Times Past

After Vietnam, veteran Louis Mello II built his American dream in SLO County

Louis Mello II pins his daughter Maggie’s Marine First Lieutenant’s bars on her.
Louis Mello II pins his daughter Maggie’s Marine First Lieutenant’s bars on her.

Part 1: Born and raised in SLO, Louis Mello Jr. carries lasting memories of Vietnam

Part 2: Former Marine Louis Mello II recalls his service in Vietnam

And here is Part 3 of Louis Mello’s story:

After being wounded in Vietnam, Louis Mello II, a San Luis Obispo native, eventually got home. He was safe, but not from bad dreams, unsettling sounds or being called a “baby killer.”

“I took the physical to get an early out since I had served in combat. Earlier, in Vietnam, I started to have difficulty with my left eye. I would look at something and there would be a huge black bubble in the middle of my vision. I asked for my eyes to be checked, but they thought I was just trying to get out of combat.

“In Nam, they never dilated my eyes, but just gave me a new pair of glasses and sent me back into combat. But when they checked my eyes at Treasure Island to get released, they found I had a cyst on my retina that destroyed my central vision.

“They then sent me to Oakland Naval Hospital to determine what had caused the cyst and to treat it.”

Louis discovered that once you got the full attention of Navy medics, they didn’t want to let go of you.

“After two weeks in the hospital and over a year of not seeing my family, I told them, ‘Unless I get to see my family, I am going AWOL!’ They gave me a 30-day pass. I ended up being in the hospital for nine months. I got home on some weekends after that and would stop off and have a beer with Jan Marsalek — a Mission, Central Catholic High, classmate then at San Jose State. She eventually asked me to marry her.”

Their marriage was quintessentially American. The grandson of Azorean immigrants wed Jan, whose Czech grandfather was forced into the Prussian Army. Jan said he had to “clean horses’ stalls with his hands, not a pitchfork, which could be used as a weapon. He rubbed his eyes until they closed shut so they would have to give him five days’ leave.” After fleeing to America, he settled in Arroyo Grande.

On her mother’s side, Jan’s great-great-grandfather, William G. Dana, received Rancho Nipomo, a Mexican land grant.

Louis used his GI Bill to go to Cuesta and Cal Poly, where he earned a degree in natural resources management. Because he and Jan wanted to remain on the Central Coast, Louis worked at the post office for 35 years.

When he retired, Louis worked on the Central Coast Salmon Enhancement project. He loves to fish, forage for chanterelle mushrooms and putter around their See Canyon property.

Louis and Jan have five big-hearted kids, all college graduates. Jan was a beloved teacher at Old Mission School.

While interviewing Louis and Jan, their son Josh called for an “expert” opinion. Josh works with special-needs children and their families. One of the fathers, who had been in combat overseas, was showing signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. What advice, Josh asked, did Louis have?

Louis knows about PTSD. He and Jan are grateful for the counseling available to veterans through Veterans Affairs.

When he retired, Louis got a letter from the Judge Advocate General’s Corps asking whether his “gunshot wound had been sustained in combat.” Fortunately, Louis delivered mail to Congresswoman Lois Capps’ office, and he got help.

Only recently, when he and Jan were looking for images for “Times Past,” did they discover that Louis’ mother, Angelina, had saved the Marine Corps telegram about his being wounded in combat.

Many of Louis’ childhood friends and classmates also served in Vietnam: Harry Hoover, James “Butchie” Sylvester, Tommy St. John, Jack Farris, Ed Oliver and Mike Benson.

Louis and Jan’s youngest child, Maggie, has a history degree from UC Davis and spent a year on a South Dakota Indian reservation as a Jesuit volunteer. Then she decided to join the Marines! If Louis were still in uniform, he’d have to salute Maggie because she’s a first lieutenant. Ditto for Louis’ dad, a Marine private first class who was wounded in World War II.

Dan Krieger’s column is special to The Tribune. He is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and past president of the California Mission Studies Association, now part of the California Missions Foundation. Liz Krieger is a retired children’s librarian for the San Luis Obispo County Library. Reach them at slohistory@gmail.com.