Morgan Hill resident Roger Martarano, a Vietnam veteran who still suffers from multiple combat injuries, was literally speechless when his friends and neighbors unveiled a gift they constructed to make it safer and easier for him to enjoy his radio-controlled airplane hobby.
Martarano, a retired nurse, is a member of the Santa Clara County Model Aircraft Skypark Tomcats, a nonprofit club of R/C airplane enthusiasts who enjoy their hobby at the Coyote Valley airfield just north of Morgan Hill. He joined the club and subsequently became hooked on R/C airplanes shortly after moving to Morgan Hill in 2010, when his new neighbor and longtime Tomcats member Tom Ciccone encouraged him to get involved.
Martarano, now 74, quickly settled in with his new group of best friends—both in his southwest Morgan Hill cul-de-sac and at the airfield that attracts hobbyists from all over the Bay Area. Years later, John Bagnatori moved into the neighborhood in 2019, and was welcomed into the Tomcats by Martarano, Ciccone and others.
But also over the years, Martarano has had increasing mobility challenges due to complications from injuries he suffered in an ambush in Vietnam in 1968. While he is still able to walk, his left knee is completely fused so he cannot bend his leg, and several months ago he underwent a replacement surgery on his right knee. In fact, he has had 22 surgeries since the 1968 combat ambush, and ongoing “secondary problems” from his initial injuries, he said.
“Throughout the years, it’s become harder and harder” to walk, Martarano said. “I have to be really sure-footed.”
The Coyote Valley airfield, which is owned by the county’s parks and recreation department, is not built for users with mobility problems, Ciccone explained. Two wooden stands that are designed to hold an R/C airplane in place while a member fuels and starts their aircraft are old and “falling apart.” And to move from these stands, or benches, to the asphalt taxiway, a flier has to carry their plane and radio while walking through uneven dirt patches.
Furthermore, the dirt surface is home to ground squirrels, which have created large holes that pose a significant tripping hazard, Ciccone said. Thus, Martarano’s friends have always been nervous watching him carry his airplane across the airfield.
“The chances of him falling, it was just a matter of time,” Ciccone said. Not only could an impact from a fall cause injury, but the quickly rotating propeller from the gas-powered airplane presents additional danger if uncontrolled.
So Ciccone, Bagnatori and two more Tomcats members—Matt Campi and Brian Lane—wanted to do something to make the park safer for their friend and neighbor. They put their heads and backs together, and decided to build a new bench for Martarano. Bagnatori and Ciccone found some detailed plans and built the bench at their homes—somehow while keeping it a secret from their next-door neighbor, Martarano.
They also determined they needed a new, safe surface to place the bench at the park, and decided to install a new 10-by-10-foot, four-inch deep reinforced concrete slab adjacent to the taxiway. That way, Martarano wouldn’t have to walk on the uneven grass or dirt while handling his airplane.
Campi and Lane—the latter using his tractor—helped pour the concrete and install the new bench. A plaque on the bench reads, “Dedicated to our Friend, Roger Martarano. Served in the U.S. Army. A Vietnam War hero.”
The friends completed the project all at their own expense, and unveiled the new bench to Martarano when he showed up for his weekly trip to the airfield Feb. 28.
Ciccone noted that the bench is available for everyone to use at the R/C airplane park, but “especially for our friend, Roger.”
“None of us are concrete people or professional contractors—we’re just everyday guys and we’re doing something for a friend in the club, and we made it happen,” Ciccone said.
The four friends’ secrecy was successful, as Martarano was choked up with surprise and gratitude, as seen in a video of the unveiling filmed by Ciccone.
“Just the fact that these guys did this for me and the club—I’m just really amazed,” Martarano said during a recent interview at Ciccone’s house. “I just don’t know how to say thank you.”
Martarano was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1967. He served in the infantry as a field medic, and was in combat on the ground in Vietnam by 1968.
On April 17, 1968, Martarano and his division were attacked in what is known in the history books as the “Horseshoe Ambush,” he said. “There were a lot of casualties, a lot of wounded,” Martarano said.
Immediately upon attack, Martarano saw one of his fellow troops collapse in front of him, and fell on his body to protect him from enemy fire, he recalled. Before Martarano realized his fellow soldier had been fatally struck, he was shot in his hand, then in both his legs. At one point during the attack, “a grenade went off and I got hit in the chest and neck,” Martarano said. “I was able to survive. I more or less died out there and came back.”
Within a few more minutes, Martarano was flown out of the combat zone in a U.S. medevac helicopter just in time to gain emergency life-saving treatment. He was in and out of hospitals for most of the next 16 months, undergoing surgeries and other treatment.
Martarano later received a Bronze Star for his bravery during the Horseshoe Ambush.
After returning to California from overseas service, Martarano continued a career in the medical field—mostly as a nurse and surgical assistant.
Also many years after Vietnam, Martarano located the medic who saved his life, Ken Blakely, who was living in Redding at the time. The two became friends and visited each other several times over the years. Blakely died in late 2021, Martarano said.
Ciccone and friends said one of the most valuable benefits of the Tomcats club is the camaraderie among members, who share knowledge and expertise in the complexities of building and flying R/C aircraft—which has led to strong bonds of friendship.
“What’s really neat is the experience the pilots there have, and their willingness to help someone who has a problem,” Martarano said.
There are hundreds of dues-paying Tomcats members, who finance all the maintenance, upgrades and supplies at the public airfield, Ciccone explained. People of all ages have been seen flying R/C airplanes at the park.
In the past, the club has hosted fundraising airshows and other events that drew thousands of spectators, but the roadway into the park washed out several years ago, limiting access. The park can still be accessed by club members via a service road, or by pedestrians and cyclists along the Coyote Valley trail.
Despite the road damage, Ciccone encourages everyone from the public to visit the airfield and learn more about R/C airplanes.
Other club members were so impressed with the new bench and concrete surface installed by Martarano’s friends that they have been asked to make two more to replace those that are deteriorating.
“This is a community club that anybody is welcome to join, no matter their age,” Ciccone said. “It’s also a social club and we’re friends.”
For more information about the Santa Clara County R/C airfield and the Tomcats club, visit sccmas.org.