Veteran’s Showcase: Tom McGiffin is a true link to early Aguanga

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Tom McGiffin
Veteran Tom McGiffin stands in front of Bergman’s Museum, his family homestead in Aguanga. Anza Valley Outlook/Diane Sieker photo

Aguanga resident Tom McGiffin is best known for living in the “Dinosaur House,” or more correctly, Bergman’s Museum. The historical building sports a dinosaur statue on it’s roof and has been a landmark for decades.

McGiffin’s family has been in Aguanga since the 1860s, beginning with Jacob Bergman, and at the museum property since 1928.

“Jacob Bergman was my great-great-grandfather,” McGiffin said. “He ran the Butterfield Stage Stop in Aguanga in the 1870s or thereabouts.”

McGiffin has a passion for local history. He is also part of the history of the nation, having served in the Navy during the Vietnam years.

The Vietnam War was a conflict in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia from November 1955 to the fall of Saigon in April 1975. It was a long and divisive conflict that involved the communist government of North Vietnam warring with South Vietnam and its principal ally, the United States.

McGiffin enlisted in the Navy in February 1971. His draft lottery turned up a No. 8, so he enlisted to be able to have more control over his career.

According to the Selective Service System, a lottery drawing was held Dec. 1, 1969, at the Selective Service National Headquarters in Washington. This drawing determined the order of call for induction into the service during the year 1970, for registrants born between Jan. 1, 1944, and Dec. 31, 1950.

Reinstitution of the lottery was a change from the “draft the oldest man first” method, which had been the determining method for deciding the order of call in the past.

There were 366 blue plastic capsules containing birth dates placed in a large glass container and drawn by hand to assign order-of-call numbers to all men within the 18-26 age range specified in Selective Service law.

With radio, film and TV coverage, these capsules were drawn from the container, opened, and the dates inside posted in order. The first capsule drawn contained the date Sept. 14, so all men born Sept. 14 in any year between 1944 and 1950 were assigned lottery No. 1. The drawing continued until all days of the year had been paired with sequence numbers.

McGiffin enlisted as to avoid the lottery call.

He attended boot camp in San Diego, then it was off to Millington, Tennessee, for aviation school. He graduated as an aviation structural mechanic.

McGiffin was then assigned to the VF-121 Fighter Squadron stationed at Naval Air Station Miramar, which was a pilot training squadron. Pilots trained on F-4 Phantom jets.

“I was at that time an F-4 Phantom jet plane captain. My job was to launch and retrieve the F-4 jet, do preflight inspections before launch and inspect it again upon returning to base. I could ground the plane for repairs if it was found to be unsafe to fly,” he said.

McGiffin was later assigned to the USS Coral Sea, USS Constellation and USS America aircraft carriers.

“We were to again launch and retrieve our aircraft,” he said. “We were there to qualify our pilots to land safely on the carriers.”

He was honorably discharged in 1975. After two more years as a Navy reservist, he completed his two-year stint in February 1977 and was honorably discharged as an 3rd class petty officer.

In 1982, McGiffin again became a military man, enlisting in the Wyoming U.S. National Guard for three years as a 155 howitzer cannoneer.

“I wanted to blow things up,” he said.

During this enlistment, he also worked a construction job, building structures for the Antelope Coal Mine, the world’s largest open pit coal mine with the cleanest burning coal in the United States.

“I was again honorably discharged as my enlistment ended,” he said.

Today McGiffin can be found at Bergman’s Museum, where he displays antiques and oddities inside the building and chats about local history.

As a veteran, he said, “I am no hero; I’m not a combat vet. They have stories, and I don’t.”

But he played his part and played it well. He is a part of history.

Diane Sieker can be reached by email at dsieker@reedermedia.com.