Michael J. Paddock, KIA Vietnam
Updated: Jun 27
"A true hero isn't measured by the size of his strength, but by the strength of his heart."
-Zeus from Hercules
When I was nine, in the late 50s, my bluebird group visited the Atascadero Zoo. It made an impression on me because I was a bit skeptical that it could be called a zoo. I'd been to the big city zoos and had seen giraffes, elephants, etc. but this was merely a row of cages holding injured animals, mostly birds.
Three years later, at age 12, I met Michael, whose father was the founder of that zoo. I was the new girl in his eighth grade class in Atascadero, CA, a small town with a population of about 4,000. My family had moved there temporarily after selling our house to search for a bigger one, due to my new baby sister. I remember Michael as a nice and friendly boy and we became school friends, but when my family moved back to San Luis Obispo, I never saw him again.
Michael James Paddock was born December 29, 1948 in Bakersfield, CA to Charles and Eunice Paddock. He had an older brother, Charlie. The family moved to Atascadero in 1955, when his dad took the county position of park ranger. His parents were divorced around 1963 and his mother, an artist, moved to Aptos. In 1965 his father remarried and Michael gained two step-sisters and a step-brother, all a little younger than himself, making a family of 5 children between the ages of 11 and 16.
Being the county park ranger meant the family lived in the ranger house on the grounds of the 35 acre Atascadero Lake Park. Living at the park had distinct advantages for a young boy - there was the 1.2 mile oval shaped lake with a small pier and swimming area, the small kiddie swimming pool, a playground, lots of lawn shaded by oak trees for running and playing, and 4th of July celebrations right in his own yard where the people from all over the county crowded to watch fireworks and enjoy picnics on the lawn.
Michael's dad (memorialized in the statue seen below) was known to love kids and animals so it's no surprise that he was scoutmaster for Michael's boy scout troop. Michael, who was competitive and dedicated, became an Eagle Scout. A friend of mine was in his boy scout troop and fondly remembers camping excursions and helping at the zoo for scout projects.
Mike's childhood friend, Joe Myall, recalls that one warm summer day he took his Slip-and-Slide to Mike's house. Mike hooked up a water hose and they set it up on a sloping portion of lawn. He says, "It was all fun and games until his dad saw us and made us stop. I believe he thought it might set a bad precedent and others would begin bringing water toys of various types to play on 'his' lawns. Anyway it was fun while it lasted."
The scraggly zoo grew as Mike grew, with more and more cages with more and better animals. The zoo animals were an integral part of Mike's life and all of the kids in the family helped out, preparing food, doing zoo chores and playing with the animals.
Not many kids grow up with zoo animals actually living in their home. Aside from Mike's dingo dog named Maddie, in the house lived a raccoon and a chimpanzee named Namtao. For one year, a lion cub named Nero actually lived in their home. During high school, Mike's best friend, Steve, came over after school one day, clueless about the new lion. As soon as they went in the house, Steve was attacked by a roaring lion cub that suddenly had his ankle in it's mouth. Steve looked at Mike, who had that sly smile of his, and Steve instantly realized that Mike had probably not warned him on purpose.
Mike had that about him - mischievous and fun loving - he loved pranks, and he had mastered the art of laughing like a peacock. Steve was in speech class with Mike and sometimes Mike would look at him with an expression that said he was about to laugh like a peacock. Steve would start to laugh, then Mike would laugh and because they couldn't stop laughing the teacher would kick them out of the room.
On one 4th of July at the Lake Park when it was filled with people, another boy scout troop was set up with a huge mound of ice containing watermelons. Michael commandeered five of them and hid them in a pool and in a bathtub, but he got found out after he and Steve had eaten some. Mike admitted to taking them, and his dad came up with a punishment; he made the boys take a boat to the little island at the far end of the lake and they were told to use buckets to water all the trees on the island. There was a catch to it - his dad had given them buckets with holes in them, so it took twice as long to water them.
Michael might have been mischievous, but by all accounts, by everyone who knew him, he was known to be loyal, responsible, caring, funny, dedicated, patriotic, quietly confident, competent and self-effacing. Michael's step-sister, Sally, says, "he was fun, stubborn, loving, and loved to tease and he was the first to defend someone".
During high school, Mike made extra money by doing yardwork, which he fit in when he wasn't scrambling up Cerro Alto Mountain with his friend Steve, or playing basketball his freshman year, doing track and field both freshman and sophomore years and playing football his junior and senior years. According to one friend, he liked girls and there is an 8 mm film that shows him dressed up for the prom, with a date and a group of friends having dinner at one of their homes prior to the dance.
The summer after his junior year, he was navigator while his friend, Joe, was the driver in a rally for the Ford Mustang Club. The goal was to decipher clues to drive a specific course and answer questions along the way. The team with the lowest mileage and the most correct answers won. Mike and Joe took first place, receiving a trophy cup. It was an event they fondly laughed about as time passed.
Michael graduated from Atascadero High School in June of 1967. Both Steve and Joe tell how Mike had a strong interest in service to others, instilled by his dad. Service to the community, to the country and to others was deep within him. Which is probably why, in the fall of 1967, he was hired as a seasonal firefighter for the California Department of Forestry stationed at the Headquarters Station on Highway 1 in San Luis Obispo. Joe had the same job but stationed elsewhere. There was a fire in the hills above San Luis Obispo where they had a chance meeting, fighting the same fire, and it's one Joe will never forget because it turned out to be the last time he would see his friend.
The Vietnam War was going strong and the draft was increasing their numbers. But Mike didn't enlist to avoid the draft. Steve says that Mike enlisted into the Marine Corps because of his strong sense of duty. He felt it was the right thing to do, his country was at war, his brother had enlisted, his father was an Air Force veteran and he was a dedicated young man with that deeply rooted desire to serve.
So on July 12, 1968, Mike enlisted into the Marine Corps. It seemed that all of his friends felt duty-bound also. They didn't wait for the draft to take them. His friend, Steve, had joined the Navy a few months prior. Mike joined with his friend Rick Chastain on the buddy system that would allow them to go to boot camp together. Two other friends (Jay and John) also joined together on the buddy system; all four enlisted on the same day, which enabled them to be in the same platoon at boot camp. At boot camp graduation they were assigned their military occupation specialties (MOS). Mike and Jay would be riflemen. John and Rick were assigned artillery.
Mike and Jay headed to Camp Pendleton in southern California for Infantry Training (IRT) and Advanced Infantry Training (AIT). They ended up in different platoons, but saw each other every day. Before being shipped to Vietnam, Mike was assigned to the 7th Marines. Jay to the 5th Marines. They never saw each other again but Jay later discovered they had been close to one another in Vietnam as their two regiments covered adjacent areas.
Mike was home on leave prior to being shipped to Vietnam. Steve was home from his deployment and they saw each other during that brief time. Steve recalls that Mike was beaming because he had met a girl, that he was in love and was anxious to get his service over with so he could return to date her. That is Steve's final memory of his best friend.
Mike arrived in Vietnam on Feb. 9th, 1969. He was stationed at Quang Nam Province, in central Vietnam, southwest of Danang, with Company M, 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines, 1st MARDIV (Rein) FMF.
On June 16, after 4 months, Mike was on a night defensive position near the Dong Cam Village in Hieu Duc District, south of Danang. They were struck by hostile mortar attack and 10 men were wounded. Mike was severely wounded with fragmentation wounds and sent to a military hospital in Danang where he died 12 days later on June 28, 1969 at the young age of 20. On the very day he was wounded he was promoted from lance corporal to corporal. He was awarded posthumously two Bronze Star Medals for heroic achievements and a Purple Heart. Forty years later, his platoon sergeant just learned of his death. He thought Mike had survived his wounds. He wrote to Mike's family: "I loved him very much and I am deeply sorry for your loss. I trained him from a pfc to corporal to become one of my squad leaders....."
I was 13 the last time I saw Michael; I remembered his kindness but couldn't recall his face. Until this week, when I saw this picture; I instantly recognized him as if were yesterday. Despite never seeing him again, I have one thing of his - his autograph, which is on my copy of our class picture.
Michael was a loss to all who knew him and he had many friends; the former mayor of Atascadero, Tom O'Malley, a school friend, said, "he left a lasting impact on our community." His step-brother, Cliff, said, "he was one of the most decent persons I have ever known." His step-sister, Sally, said, "he was the kind of guy you could always count on. He would have your back and defend you with his own life." Mike never got to have a family but his name lives on. In his honor, his friend, Rick Chastain, who enlisted with him, named his son after him. His brother Charlie named his son Michael. His step-sister, Sally's son's middle name is Michael, as is her grandson's. All of these Michaels are in honor of Michael J. Paddock whose life was cut short. The aviary at the zoo is dedicated to Michael. The community pitched in to help his father build it. When you visit the zoo, and walk through the aviary please think of Michael and that it is built by a father's grief. And his best friend, Steve, wears a bracelet with Mike's information on it; when Steve lived in Atascadero, he visited Mike's gravestone regularly to wipe away the dirt and leaves, so that his name would shine the way Mikey did in life - a light of joy to all who knew him, the "apple of his father's eye", as Sally puts it.
The picture on the right shows Michael and his brother Charlie sitting on mortars in Danang. They were able to meet up for a couple of days, but stationed at different places. Brothers from a small town, a sheltered life, raised in a park surrounded by zoo animals and here they sit together in the middle of a war zone, final time together.
For another of Lynne's stories, about her uncle who was KIA in Vietnam, follow this link: