East Bay Press Club, Light feature, 3rd place, 2002
For love of his life, Fremont man risked everything: He met her during Vietnam War — and couldn’t let go
FREMONT — You can’t talk sense into a young man in love.
But John Kangas was more than just smitten by the woman from the Philippines he met during the Vietnam War. He was hypnotized.
So obsessed was Kangas with finding and marrying Cristita Sampaga that –after serving his time in the war — he re-enlisted. It didn’t matter that the young Marine didn’t know where she lived. And it didn’t matter that she was completely unaware of his intentions.
More than three decades later, Kangas, now 59, recalls how he hurdled obstacle after obstacle in an attempt to find, court and marry the woman who, as they celebrate Valentine’s Day today, has been his wife for 32 years. He sneaked on planes, criss-crossed the Pacific, disobeyed orders and even cheated death.
But it was worth it, he says. Today, the couple lives in a home on Mildred Drive. They have four children, two of whom still live at home, and are raising five grandchildren. This is the story of how they were married, as they remember it.
It started as an epiphany in 1963. Kangas, having returned from duty in Vietnam, was in his barracks in Jacksonville, Fla. In the middle of a bitter divorce, he had just hung up the phone after talking to his lawyer. “I knew I wanted to get married again,” he recalls. “So I thought: ‘What qualities am I looking for?'”
Lying in his bunk, Kangas waxed thoughtful and conjured an answer: Honesty. But his ideas didn’t stop there.
“Then I get this flashback,” he recalls. “I’m in the Philippines, in this restaurant. I had had a date to meet her at noon there. She didn’t show up
until one. So I asked her, ‘What happened?'”
At the time, he didn’t like her answer: She had been on a date with another man. It didn’t matter that they were only friends — her answer still grated him. Now, lying on his bunk, Kangas realized why: He loved her.
Thus began a six-month odyssey to find her.
His first move was to return to Vietnam.
The Marines thought it was odd, but Kangas went back and resumed his duty as an electrician aboard a bomber.
During his first week of “rest and relaxation,” Kangas didn’t relax. He went back to the Philippines.
He booked a hotel in Sampaga’s hometown of Olongapo and called a taxi. When the driver inquired about Kangas’ destination, the young man uttered a name, not a place, and offered the driver a 20-peso bill — worth well more than the price of a typical cab drive.
“It’s yours if you find her,” Kangas said.
The driver nodded and drove slowly through the streets with his window down, talking to passers-by and shop owners, gathering clues.
Within 30 minutes, the driver found her home, a dwelling with no electricity or running water.
“There wasn’t even a door,” Kangas recalls.
The driver left Kangas in the taxi and approached the home. Sampaga appeared in the doorway. They spoke for a few minutes, then the driver returned to the taxi and brought Kangas to the doorway.
Kangas looked at her, and slipped the driver the money.
She looked at him, and invited him in.
“I had both an engagement ring and wedding ring in my pocket,” recalls Kangas, who didn’t waste much time. After engaging in small talk for a while, he proposed.
“He told me: ‘I want to get married again,'” she remembers. “I say: ‘Who’s the lucky girl?’
“He say: ‘You!'”
She said yes, but recalls that she never really expected the wedding to happen.
“I was already engaged with an American, but he never came back,” she says. “I don’t trust Americans. When I got (Kangas’) ring, I took it to the pawn shop.”
Still, they spent what both remember as a wonderful week together. When it ended, Kangas returned to the war and Sampaga thought him gone forever.
Little did she know.
Kangas’ second Vietnam tour ended in 1966. Still desperate to marry the skeptical Sampaga, he requested an extension. This time, however, he was turned down. He later learned he likely would have died with his crew had the extension been granted.
Still determined to see Sampaga, to convince her to marry him, Kangas sought a passport and visa so he could visit her in the Philippines. But more problems arose. To get the passport, he needed to travel to Hawaii. To get the visa, he needed to travel to Japan.
His only chance was during a month-long furlough before he returned to the States. He used 18 days of it running errands on the Pacific Ocean — retrieving his passport and visa — and spent the remaining 12 days with Sampaga.
This time, they made plans to be married — as soon as he could finalize his divorce.
When he left, she again assumed he would not return.
Kangas, however, was determined. By 1967, the divorce was final. Now, he needed to get to the Philippines, so they could get married. But there were no flights to the Philippines. The closest Kangas could get was Hawaii.
Once there, he met some members of a Philippine navy crew on their way to Guam. They learned of his plight and offered him a seat aboard their plane. In Guam, he got word of a plane that was leaving the next day for the Philippines, where he wasn’t allowed.
“The pilot had flown it there to wash it,” he says. “It was a VIP plane.”
In the Philippines, Kangas talked his way past an officer who tried to stop him but missed a ride he had lined up to take him to Sampaga’s home. Finally, after hopping into the side car of a motorcycle taxi, Kangas reached his destination, exhausted.
But Sampaga was not there. She had moved to a nearby city to work, her father told Kangas.
“She didn’t believe you were coming,” her father said.
Kangas gave her father a $20 bill, this time in American money, to find her.
“He left that night, about midnight. At about eight the next morning, he was back with her,” Kangas remembers.
Soon after, they were married in an open field by the town’s mayor.
“We fed 2,000 people,” Kangas says. “We danced all night.”
Once again, though, Kangas returned home alone.
In 1968, the couple had been married almost a year when the red tape was finally cut. But a big problem remained: getting word to her and getting her here. Her family had no phone, so Kangas could communicate with his wife only through letters.
Once in awhile, she would go into town to call Kangas, who was living in Southern California, about 30 miles south of Los Angeles. But just before she flew to Los Angeles, Kangas moved from the barracks into an apartment, and was unable to tell her his new phone number. In the end, Kangas drove to LAX. “I couldn’t find her,” he recalled.
So he called the barracks. “Did she call?” he asked the officer. “You could say that,” the officer answered. “She’s at the main gate.”
“Somehow,” Kangas recalls, “she figured out how to catch a bus to the barracks. She made it to the main gate of the base. Meanwhile, I’m in L.A. International.”
He drove the 30 miles to the gate, where she stood waiting. After a five-year struggle, they were together at last. Eventually, they settled in Fremont, where Kangas landed a job as an engineer and they started a family.
“I promised the mayor (who married them) we would have 12 kids,” Kangas says over the voices of two of his grandchildren. “We got almost halfway there.”
On April 2, they will celebrate their 33rd anniversary.