Big Leon and John"Duke" Wayne
By Rodney Santos, Army
Writing Type: Prose
As Father Garbo began Big Leon's funeral Mass, he spoke of the life of Napoleon Villaluz Cabading (April 1, 1933 - May 3, 2016): an honorably retired U.S. Navy chief petty officer. A devoted husband to Madeline, loving father to Caroline and Leon. A grandfather, an uncle, a cousin, a coworker, a friend and neighbor. The relationship I shared with Leon as a family friend and neighbor also included John "Duke" Wayne, the film actor.
I was a taller-than-average Filipino American teenager, and I was introduced to Big Leon in the early 1960s by my foster father. Leon and his wife lived around the corner from us in a San Francisco neighborhood that could have easily been referred to as “Manila-town,” given the significant number of Filipino families living in the four-square block community.
It was Leon's height and mass that impressed me. He was the first Filipino I ever met who was over six feet tall; he was well over two-hundred pounds of muscle. From my perspective he was a giant of a man, as large as any of the professional football players I would see playing at San Francisco 49er games. Yet Big Leon was a soft-spoken man with a warm smile that always made me feel at ease. Just knowing him made me feel comfortable as I grew into adulthood and my own six-foot two-inch, two-hundred-pound body. It was because of Big Leon that I never felt like a Filipino cultural oddity just because I was over six feet tall. Because of Big Leon, I was not alone.
In the summer of 1967, I was stationed at Fort Benning in Columbus, Ga., with the 3rd Army awaiting deployment orders to Vietnam. One Saturday morning, I stood with 30 other soldiers of Asian descent in a single-line formation on the parade ground as the actor John "Duke" Wayne came up to each of us individually for an inspection of sorts. The ordered formation was the military version of a Hollywood casting call for Wayne’s movie The Green Beret. When Mr. Wayne stood in front of me, I couldn't believe I was taller than him. He looked into my eyes and in his notable drawl said, “Son, you’re pretty tall,” and I responded, "Mr. Wayne, my father gave me a lot of milk and I would really like to be in your movie.” Yet, I thought to myself: Duke, if you think I'm tall, you should meet Big Leon.
I was cast as an extra in the film and portrayed a Viet Cong soldier attacking the Green Beret compound. Because of my height I was strategically placed in a trench surrounded by height-appropriate Asian soldier-actors who were at ground level. As a footnote, within two weeks after my Hollywood moment, I was in the Central Highlands of Vietnam watching another John Wayne war movie, The Longest Day.
A few days before Big Leon passed away, the California Assembly rejected proposed legislation declaring May 26, the actor's birthday, as "John Wayne Day" in California, due to the actor's "disturbing views towards race."
As for me and for more than 50 years, whenever I see, hear, or read anything about John Wayne, I always recall his remarks on my unusual height and fondly remember Napoleon “Big Leon” Villaluz Cabading.
Writing Aide: Inga Spencer