Tracing Tracy Territory: Final farewell to police captain, Purple Heart Marine
by Sam Matthews
Mar 08, 2013 | 3490 views | 1 1 comments | 11 11 recommendations | email to a friend | print
John J. Serpa speaks at a Veterans Day program at the Tracy War Memorial.  Press file photo
John J. Serpa speaks at a Veterans Day program at the Tracy War Memorial. Press file photo
I received a note in the mail the other day. It was penned in clearly printed all-capital words. It was from John Serpa. It read:

“Sam, thank you so much for our stories of Tracy area history — but in particular, the recent articles about Byron Hot Springs.

“When our family’s dairy was moved from Stockton to Tracy in the early 1940s, we leased a number of acres in the Byron Hills. The road led past the entrance to the secret base at Byron Hot Springs. We heard rumors, but learned nothing.

“The land was leased for dry stock. We kept a couple of low-production cows to raise family beef — 500 pounds of prime baby beef. After being in ‘the wild’ for a while, the cows seemed to pick up the same mysterious characteristics and bedded down the calves in the direction of the base.

“When we approached the herd, the mother cows would walk away from the base in an attempt to lure us away from the calves.

“I appreciated the listing of names like Frank Shelby at the interrogation base, and others. Seemed like old times again.”

After explaining that health reasons prevented him from seeing me at Tracy Rotary Club meetings, John closed with these words: “I treasure our long friendship.”

He must have known his life was nearing its final days, and it was a final farewell.

Our friendship goes back to the 1950s, when John was a sergeant, and then captain, at the Tracy Police Department, and I was a neophyte police reporter.

Jerry Hodges was the chief, but it was John who ran the department on a day-to-day basis with a calm, steady hand.

I still vividly recall one day — Jan. 8, 1968 — seeing John in the middle of B Street just south of 10th Street with a shotgun in hand. A suspected check forger, waving a pistol, had taken Tracyite Louie Baca hostage in Louie’s pickup when officers tried to arrest him.

The suspect put the gun to Louie’s head and said he would kill him if the police didn’t let him and an accomplice — who was in the back seat of a nearby police car — go free.

Louie ended the 15-minute standoff by grabbing the suspect’s gun-arm. The gun went off, the bullet barely missed Louie’s head, and Louie took the gun.

John, who was standing close by, quickly grabbed the hefty suspect and, with the help of officer Tom Davis and Detective Charlie Guevara, handcuffed him.

That quick and decisive action ended what could have been a bloody episode. John gave all the credit to Louie, and it was clearly deserved, but the police captain also had an important part in facing the suspect down and bringing the standoff to a safe conclusion.

Later, after retiring from the department after 20 years, John operated the Arco am-pm in Lathrop. But the Marine Corps and Purple Heart veteran of the Battle of Okinawa in the closing days of World War II still kept close ties with local Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion posts.

In the late 1980s, when representatives of veterans groups and service clubs organized to build the Tracy War Memorial, John was the right-hand man of committee chairman John Gomes in moving the project forward. I represented the Tracy Rotary Club and took part in planning, financing and building the monument in Tracy Civic Center.

I know what an important part John played in making the dream become a reality. He followed John Gomes as president of the Tracy War Memorial Association and remained active to the time of his death.

Over the years, John and I both agreed that neither of us had come across a war memorial in any town in the U.S. or abroad that topped the one in our hometown.

At numerous Memorial Day and Veterans Day programs at the Tracy War Memorial, John was a frequent speaker and always a participant. He wore the red blazer of the Marine Corps League, an organization he served as area commandant, regional

commandant and honorary national past commandant.

John didn’t just mouth the words, “Once a Marine, always a Marine,” he lived them.

Over the years in our town, he became a living symbol of the veterans of World War II.

There are fewer WWII vets among us each passing day, and John’s death is a reminder that an era is ending, and it won’t be long before they are all gone.

• Sam Matthews, Tracy Press publisher emeritus, can be reached at 830-4324 or by email at
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March 08, 2013
John's passng will leave a big void in Tracy. I remeber him from as far back as the 1940's and he was always a special person. Semper fi

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