Thursday, April 04, 2019

Through American Eyes

   Youth and Innocence
     "I quit [high] school right about April of '41, just before Pearl Harbor," my father said, sitting back in his chair where he could feel a cool breeze blow in through his bedroom window, and continued, "I sensed there was no future going to school. A lot of guys were joining the 'service'. A lot of guys were going into the peacetime army. Some guys joined the CC camps (Conservation Corps) and from there they went right into the military. But after Pearl Harbor, everybody was joining; even the smart kids were joining. In those days, school wasn’t what it is now. Today, kids have a lot of choices. For us we only had one choice…work."
     Something caused a shift in his focus, and he began talking about his Japanese friends and how much it bothered him when the government shipped them to relocation camps and confiscated their property. He remembered his friend George Kanagai, as American as any kid in town.
     "George told me he went to get his Boy Scout merit badge in swimming, but they told him he could only use the pool on certain days. There was more discrimination against the Japanese than us."
     George Kanagai joined the Army and distinguished himself in Europe, fighting with the famed 442nd, all Japanese infantry battalion, known for winning more medals than any other unit in WWII.
     George became an officer, made a career of the Army, and eventually retired and returned to West Los Angeles, where his family waited. Ironically, he dedicated his life to serve the same government that interned his family and friends.
     Ted Nakamura, on the other hand, a neighbor who lived two doors down from us, had been sent to a relocation camp with his family during the war. My dad told me how one afternoon, Ted told my father about the time the Army came to the camp to ask the incarcerated Japanese men if they would serve in the military and swear allegiance to the U.S., a strange request considering most of them were already Americans, born and educated in the U.S.
     My father recalled Ted telling him, “They take everything from my family, lock us up in a camp, then ask us to fight for this country... No!” he answered to both questions. Mr. Nakamura was to become what the Japanese Nisei, and historians, called a "No-No Boy." My father, an army veteran, told his friend, “I don’t blame you one bit, Ted.”
     To drive home his point, my father asked me, "You know Bob Brent?” I nodded that I did. He was one of my dad’s friends “Well, Bob told me he had to go to Lordsburg, New Mexico to get married—in 1955, because his wife was Japanese. Ain't that funny? Didn't I tell you? In the 1800s, California passed a law where Anglos couldn't marry Japanese or blacks. But, guess what? An Anglo could marry a Mexican. You know why? That's because the government figured one way to take Mexican lands from the Californios was for Anglos to marry Mexican girls whose families had a Spanish land grants.”
     In 1941, after my father quit high school, he and his parents were living in Sawtelle, or what the Mexicans pronounced, Sotel, West Los Angeles today, in a house near Sepulveda and Pico Boulevards, on Pontius Avenue. He continued talking, his mind meandering through his memory. I let him take me wherever he desired.
     He said, "Remember, there weren't any apartments back then. My dad, your grandpa, always rented."
     "Why didn't he buy?"
     "Well, the people from Mexico always thought one day they were going to get sent back, so why buy property? But that was just a rumor. You know how people were then. But! They did send some back in the '30s. Some people they picked up right off the street. They didn't ask them anything. They just put them on a train. Nobody from our town, mostly [people] from the east side. Sometimes they'd round 'em up downtown and take them away. The families didn't even know what happened to the fathers. A year later or so the families would get a letter from Mexico. I did meet guys my age who got taken to Mexico, but they were born here, so they got to come back. Maybe in some ways it was worse than what happened to the Japanese because at least the Japanese knew where they were going. These people didn't know what happened. They just were gone."
     He was referring to the forced repatriation of Mexicans, a U.S. program initiated in the 1930s. In their book, Decade of Betrayal, Francisco Balderrama and Raymond Rodriguez described the social and economic disaster, for both the U.S. and Mexico, that proceeded the action, a clear warning for those today who do not truly understand border politics or economics.
     “When did you go into the Army?” I asked.
     “I quit school in the eleventh grade, and that's when they drafted me. They gave me a month before I had to go in…right here to the Masonic Hall, for our physical exams, on Santa Monica Boulevard and Butler. And oh, god, everybody was there, all my friends, mostly eighteen-year-olds, drafted together. Pete Valdez and the older guys went before us. Congress passed the first draft in 1940 for 21-years-olds. Then when the war started, I guess Congress figured they'd need more…so they passed the law to draft of 18-year-olds. I was in the second batch. Everybody wanted to go, too. In fact, I remember one guy started crying because he couldn't go. He had lung problems or something.”
     "What did your father say about it?”
     He thought, as if remembering, then answered, "Well, my dad said, 'If they want you, you've got to go. It's your duty.'
     "My brother Nick, and your uncle, Rufino, were fathers, but they got drafted in the tail end of the war. Rufino had five-kids, and they still took him. His brother Trini got killed in Europe. My brother Nick and Rufino went to the Philippines, mostly clean-up duty by that time. I went in 1942, to Basic Training in Mississippi."
     In a low steady voice, he told me how after basic training, the Army assigned him to mechanic school. He said, “Because I guess my tests showed my IQ was pretty good. But I wasn't mechanically inclined. I just couldn’t get it. After eleven months, I just didn't feel comfortable. I had to work on airplanes, but I told them nothing I learned had really sunk in, so they sent me to Georgia where I drove a truck, towed the planes around, checked the tires, and pulled guard duty."
     In those days, it was the Army Air Corps. "If you didn't fly, the Air Corps was no fun. They sent me to San Rafael, California for nine months. Then they told me I was going to Texas, for advanced infantry training. In Texas, I met a guy named Philip Lyman. We became good friends.
     "I also met quite a few guys from Puerto Rico. They came from the island where it was warm, so, in Texas, they were always cold. The sergeants made fun of them all the time. They couldn’t speak English. I did the translating for them. The Puerto Ricans had already been in the Army in Puerto Rico, and since Puerto Rico was considered overseas duty, they were receiving overseas pay. In Texas, when they received their first paycheck, they were short $21.00. That was a lot of money in 1942. They couldn't figure it out, so they asked me to go talk to the paymaster. There I was with about 20 Puerto Rican guys following me. That's when they found out since they were in the States, they wouldn't receive the extra pay."
     My father volunteered for Jump School at Fort Benning, Georgia. He had heard many Chicanos were joining the paratroopers, like the Villa brothers, Aurelio and Nico, though Nico had already been killed in Italy.
     “Why did so many Chicanos go Airborne?” I asked.
     He said, first, it was for the extra jump pay, an added incentive for poor kids who were sending home money to help support their families. He also said it was the uniforms. Only paratroopers could tuck their pant legs into their special jump boots and wear the airborne wings and insignia on their caps. He figured, finally, it was to show courage, maybe even loyalty to a country that had always questioned their American-ness. He said that he, Philip Lyman, and Kiki Estrada, a Puerto Rican friend, all signed up.
     After Jump School, he got 15-day leave before reporting for overseas duty. He came home, with Philip Lyman, who had a girlfriend in Los Angeles. Instead of reporting for overseas duty on the date assigned, they both got drunk and stayed AWOL 22 days. When they reported back, they learned they had missed their deployment to Europe. They both figured the Army would just put them on the next ship out. Instead, the Army sentenced them to six-months in the stockade.
     He asked the commanding officer, "Why don't you just send us to Europe?" He rejected their request.
     "That didn't make any sense to me, having us sit in stockade when we could have still gone overseas."
The Hidden Scars
     "Did many guys from your hometown get killed in the war?"
     He grew pensive, then said, "Let's see Sal Talamantez, Aurelio Baca, Nico Villa, (Teh-Teh's brother), --ah…Alfonso Mendez…who else? Joe Fojardo…. There were quite a few."
     I asked, "And that was just West L.A.?"
     "Yeah, just West L.A. Oh, Santa Monica had a lot of them. Oh they lost quite a bit, like Chava Guajardo (Tudi's brother), Talo Mireles, Tino Diaz, Julio Marquez, Ramon Hernandez--no wait, I think he was killed in Korea. There was Tony Manriquez and Trini Hernandez, Rufino's brother, Joe Gandara [recently awarded the Medal of Honor], and a lot others."
     "Why so many guys from Santa Monica?" I asked.
     "See, there were more people in Santa Monica. It was an older town. Over there they had more barrios. Here [West L.A.] they (the barrios) were scattered all over and there were Anglos mixed in. In Santa Monica, a lot of them came from the same towns in Jalisco, like San Juan de Los Lagos and Valle de Guadalupe.
     "The Simons brickyard of Montebello sent a lot of Chicanos to Santa Monica in the 1920s. Simons built homes for them. In fact, most of the people on 24th and 25th Street came from Simons. That's what your grandfather [my mother's father] died of, brick-dust in the lungs. Then Simons [in Santa Monica] sold out to Higgins. But the guys stayed-on, working. A lot of them retired from the brickyard. But that also meant a lot more Chicanos lived in Santa Monica and got drafted."
     "Did you know any of those guys well, the ones who died?"
     "Yeah, I knew them all. When I was at Ft. Campbell, I met a guy who had made six combat jumps. That’s a lot. After four jumps, the Army would assign you to stateside duty, but this guy stayed in. He said he made his first jump with the 82nd Airborne in North Africa.
     “I knew Nico Villa had been in the 82nd Airborne, so I asked if he knew Nick Villa. The guy did. He even knew how Nico got killed. It was in the invasion of Anzio, in Italy. Nico had parachuted in. He saw heavy action. The Army had broken through the beachhead. Nico and the guys had come into a small town. The guys were out of water and thirsty. You know in Italy how they have those fountains in the middle of town? Well, the guy said Nico and a bunch of other guys ran over and started drinking water. Someone called in the German planes. They came in a shot up the center of town. After all that fighting…Nico and those guys get killed drinking water. The first thing you always learn in the Army is to never bunch-up."
     He remembered Frank Machado, a kid from West L.A., an M.P. who had been stationed stateside. He got bored, and he went AWOL for a few weeks. When he returned, his punishment was to go overseas. He went on a troop carrier. "The Germans sank Frank's ship before he even reached Europe."
Bart and Pearl Carrillo: The Next Generation
     He thought for a moment, and then said, "You know, it was a pretty exciting time in West L.A. I mean, there were soldiers all over. There were gun batteries stationed at the Soldier's Home, up in Brentwood, and at Stoner Park. They were camouflaged. I guess there were about thirty guys stationed at Stoner Park. Before we were drafted, we used to watch them go through their exercises. M.P.s would patrol along Santa Monica Boulevard, looking for guys going AWOL.
     "Every afternoon, the sirens would go off, and everyone had to cover their windows to keep the lights from shining through. The air raids kept going off, even into the '50s. You remember that?"
     I did. The sirens were used in the late 50s and early 60s to prepare us for an atomic bomb attack. When the sirens sounded, we would practice diving under our desks in school, and cover our head with our hands.
     After his discharge from the military, my mother and father married. He worked in construction. He said employers searched desperately for workers during those post-war boom years. Contractors, especially in housing, wanted skilled labor, union jobs closed to my grandfather's generation. Though, that’s a whole other story.


Unknown said...

Daniel, your reports on your family's reminiscences of Mexican life on the West Side continue to be important annals of ou otherwise unwritten local history. Grácias. Daniel Acosta

Unknown said...

Thank you so much for posting. Your pictures include loved family members. You article will be given to my children and grandchildren!

Daniel Cano said...

Thank you Daniel, and anonymous, for responding. It helps us bloggers to see what is valuable to readers. There are so many stories and so much history yet to be told.

Unknown said...

Thank you for sharing your photo my dad was young in that photo thank you Mark Aro owner and Founder of Operation PTSD A Veterans Group in Ca.