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7 1/2 months as POW
From Green Beret to restaurant owner
Former Vietnam Prisoner of War Arthur Cordoba shows his grandson Pablo two of the walking sticks he made for veterans inside of his restaurant Nanas Pupuseria in the Cardoza West shopping center on Louise Avenue in Manteca. - photo by HIME ROMERO

Armando Cordoba was 3 ½ klicks behind enemy lines on a recon mission in Cambodia when he realized that he was in trouble.

With only two fellow Green Berets by his side, Cordoba could see the North Vietnamese Army gathering in the jungle in front of him. It started to become clear that the helicopter that dropped them made a serious topographical error.

So he and his men did the only thing that they could. They radioed in for confirmation that they were in fact deeper into enemy territory than they were supposed to be, waited for word that an evacuation was coming and slowly started to back out.

That’s when all hell broke loose.

The NVA spotted the three men and opened up on their position. The Green Berets – one of the Army’s Special Forces Groups that receives extensive outdoor survival training – fired back as they retreated towards the evacuation zone. The cover fire and the assistance of a pair of gunships was enough to get them to the bird that was waiting, and they piled in.

And then everything went black.

“They hit the tail of the helicopter and it went down. When I finally woke up there was smoke everywhere, and I could hear one of our men screaming,” Cordoba said. “I started working my way over there and that’s when I felt a gun press against my neck and heard a command telling me to stop. The next thing I knew I got hit in the face with the butt of the gun – it knocked my top teeth out and everything – and I came to with a bag over my head and my hands tied up.

“I knew then what was going to happen.”

Life as a Prisoner of War

For 7 ½ months Cordoba was kept as a prisoner by the NVA in a series of camps that he believes were in Cambodia and Laos. They would remain caged in for 18 hours a day, and would receive only minimal amounts of food and water. Contact among the prisoners was strictly prohibited – even eye contact would result in a visit from the guards.

And treatment, he said, was a nightmare. Waterboarding was a regular occurrence, and other forms of torture used to try and coax information out of the prisoners included inserting bamboo shoots underneath finger and toenails. Electrocuting prisoners by forcing them to stand in water that had been wired was also a tactic, Cordoba said, that was used.

“The things that they did were brutal,” he said. “But they never got any information out of me.”

An opportunity for freedom

When a bombing run drove most of the guards away from the camp and provided a chance for the prisoners to make a dash for freedom, Cordoba joined up with a handful of American pilots and helped devise a plan that would eventually lead them to safe ground.

But it wouldn’t be easy.

Over the course of 11 days, the group would have to hunker down during the day – finding food and edibles where they could – and advance through the jungle during the night. The poor health of some of the former captives prevented the group from making the sort of ground they could have, Cordoba said, but eventually they got to where they needed to be.

“It was such a relief being home again. A lot of the guys there couldn’t believe that we had made it as far as we did,” he said. “The survival training that I received as a Green Beret was what got me through that experience. I was fortunate that I had those skills.”

Cordoba would eventually be awarded a pair of Purple Hearts, a pair of Bronze Stars and a Silver Star for his heroism and his bravery in service during the Vietnam War.

Life After The Military

After his six years in the Army, Cordoba would go on to spend 22 years working for AT&T before retiring. He and his wife would go on to open Nana’s Pupuseria in the Cardoza West shopping center. He now spends a good portion of his time behind the counter getting to know the regular customers that come in to enjoy the Central American food that’s cooked up fresh.

While he’s proud of his service, Cordoba – who immigrated to the United States in 1959 from Costa Rica and was drafted in 1964 – chooses not to participate in the Veterans Day or Memorial Day events and ceremonies that are held every year. They bring back too many memories, he said, and trigger flashbacks. Even fireworks on the Fourth of July are something that he stays away from – choosing to shut all the windows and doors and watch TV rather than take in the aerial display or the local home shows.

But he does still stay plugged in to his military background with a hobby that not only keeps him busy but benefits veterans at the same time.

Cordoba goes out into the community searching for straight pieces of wood and root that he then sands, lacquers and carves and eventually distributes to those at the VA Hospital in Palo Alto. It’s a great outlet, he says, and a great hobby.

“I made some of these for Mike Anderson down at Manteca Auto Plaza – he lost a son a few years ago in Iraq. His wife was so moved by it that she started crying – that really touched my heart,” he said. “And seeing the look on the faces of the veterans when they get this is what doing this is all about.”