San Diego's DNA: Military Roots
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June 22, 2009 – San Diego's DNA: Military Roots explores the region's history through the stories and personal artifacts of remarkable San Diegans. The 30-minute documentary features vignettes of six military veterans whose personal accounts create a unique narrative. Photographs, articles and letters will give viewers a glimpse into the past.
ABE SHRAGGE (Curator, Veteran's Museum and Memorial Center): Hello, I’m Abe Shragge. I love history, and I find it especially rewarding to discover and investigate the themes that make up a community’s story. Its DNA, if you will. San Diego’s military history goes back to its beginning. Today, you’re going to meet just a few of the many who are part of the military strand of San Diego’s DNA. My colleague, historian Iris Engstrand, and I talked with them at the Veteran’s Museum in Balboa Park. IRIS ENGSTRAND (Editor, The San Diego Journal of History, professor, University of San Diego): Welcome Wally, I’m so glad to have you here on our program on military experience. In fact I understand that your Military experience started probably before anyone, so lets hear about it. WALLACE PECK Veteran): My father, who came from Western New York, joined, (lied about his age) and got into the Army back in 1915. He was sent to the Philippines Islands, spent a couple of years in the Philippine Islands then he was sent to China to spend a couple of years in China, in Siberia at the end of the first World War. PECK: He was assigned back to the United States, after being 13 years overseas, and he was assigned to the seventh bombardment group, which was the Army operation on Rockwell Field at the time. At the time, the Army occupied half of North Island and the Navy occupied the other half. ENGSTRAND: Is that a picture of the plane that he used in North Island? I see the one over by you. PECK: Well this is later. This is in. He started out as a private on North Island, on Rockwell field and then the Army started to put together a plan to see how long they could keep an airplane aloft and he was part of the ground service crew for that airplane, which was called the Question Mark. The plane flew for a hundred and fifty hours, which is almost seven days, back and forward between Van Nuys and Rockwell field, being refueled in the air. So he was on the ground support group. My mother who had just come from Iowa, was working at the flight line restaurant and that’s where they met, my mother and my father in Van Nuys in 1928 29 so that’s how they got together. So she moved to San Diego to continue their courtship and she got a job with the Russell parachute company that photograph over there which is located in the old McClintock storage building, which is now the home of Rainwater restaurant and a number of other operations. That’s a photograph from about 1928 when she was working there, although I can’t find her in there, but those are the seamstresses that were putting together parachutes for that company at the time. ENGSTRAND: Well I see a little picture over by you is that when you made your appearance? PECK: Well I appeared in 1930 and we lived on India Street when I was born, which is now practically cut off by the I-5 freeway, then we moved to Coronado and then ultimately, we moved right on to the base at Rockwell field. And we were one of the first occupants, we moved-in in early January of 1934 and this photograph here is of my family, my brother, myself in 1934 right after we moved-in. And I was over there a couple of years ago and took a photograph of the house, it’s still there and they’re well maintained and they’re now on the national register of historic places. ENGSTRAND: Your father made an interesting prediction when you were born, I think it’s in that newspaper article. PECK: Well somehow, they got an article in the newspaper I week after I was born, this is in the San Diego Union, which says, Sergeant Peck who is receiving congratulations upon the arrival of Wallace Russell (that’s me) says that just twenty years hence, Wallace Russell will appear at Kelly field Texas, for instruction as an Army pilot. It’s all settled, the only thing, which remains, is for the twenty years to roll by. Well I was never too enamored about going in the service and he wanted me to go to West Point and I vetoed that I decided I wanted to go to Law School, so I graduated from the University of California, Berkeley and I had a nine-month hiatus before Law School started, so I worked as a fry-cook in San Francisco at a restaurant chain and then along came the Korean War and the congress reinstated the draft, and I didn’t want to be drafted so I immediately signed up for the air cadet program and as the article says was exactly twenty years later that I appeared in Texas for flight training. My father, he retired in 1950 after thirty years of total service and I went in two months after he retired so one replaced the other. ENGSTRAND: Hello Ramón, I’m happy to welcome you here to the program and I’m hoping that you’ll tell us a little bit about your military experience. RAMÓN RUIZ (Veteran): There was a war going on, as I recall it was Second World War and there was something called the draft and I knew a couple of things, one was I didn’t want to be an enlisted man, and secondly I didn’t want to be drafted. So to avoid being an enlisted man and being drafted, I volunteered for the United States Army Air Corps and that’s how I became a pilot and a second Lieutenant. ENGSTRAND: Did you experience any discrimination in the service, being Mexican? RUIZ: You know, I’m a Phi Beta Kappa, I was a very good student, and the Navy required 2 years to be a Naval officer. They had a V-6 program and a V-12; they wouldn’t take me. And then I thought, well, maybe the Merchant Marines will take me, and so I went to Long Beach and took an exam, and I never heard from them. And then I heard that maybe the Marines would take me, and so 14 of us from San Diego State went down to the Marine Corps people. Thirteen were taken, and I was the only one rejected. And then I finally thought well maybe I’ll fly for the Navy. The requirements were 2 years of college and a physical. So I went up to Long Beach and I went through the physical. At the very end my last stop was the physical of my eyes. And the corpsman there said, “Your eyes are not that good.” So I went home and told my father, and my father said, “Well let’s go see a specialist in San Diego.” And we did. And the specialist looked at my eyes and he said, “They’re perfect. But if your father will pay for the exercises that I can give him, I’m sure that he can go back and pass.” Well I took the exercises, my father paid for them, and I went back. I got through the whole thing until I got to the eye exam. And another corpsman said to me, “The commander wants to see you.” And this commander came and he said, “Sit down, son.” And he said, “There’s no place in the Naval Officer Corps for someone of your background. The only place for you to be an officer is in the Army Air Corps.” And that’s why I became an officer and a pilot in the United States Army Air Corps. ENGSTRAND: I am hoping that today in the military, in fact I know it’s changed. RUIZ: I know it has. I know it has, but you know Iris, those were difficult days. My brother went through the same kind of thing. My brother was also a lieutenant, and he flew B-24’s over in England, and he was also rejected by the Naval Air Corps. And he won the Distinguished Flying Cross. He flew over Germany 32 times as a pilot of a B-24. ENGSTRAND: I know Mexicans in general contributed so greatly to the war, World War II, and all the wars since then of course. RUIZ: Yes, but that’s the way things were you know. ABE SHRAGGE: Part of your life here has been as the curator of the Chinese-American museum in San Diego, and you’ve been doing an oral history project with Chinese-American veterans of WWII and I wanted to ask you a little bit about that. MURRAY LEE (Veteran): Most of the Chinese young men in those days lived down in Chinatown, because it was the only place the Chinese could live along with the Japanese and the Filipinos. You had to be south of Market like, and Market to J, and 2nd to 6th street. Those 8 blocks. SHRAGGE: Tell us a little bit about some of the fellows that we see in this picture. LEE: Well this picture was taken in 1942 out at Fort Rosecrans. That was the area I guess that they welcomed them into the Army Air Corps - because they all were volunteers to join the Army Air Corps. They never allow Chinese to be pilots, with a few exceptions. And they all joined and they were all friends. That’s Henry Quinn on the left there, who is grandson of Ah Quinn – who is the mayor of Chinatown in the late 1800s. Next to him is James Hom. That’s the older brother of Tom Hom, who was in City Council here. And George Lee, then Norman Leong, Carl Quoi – and he has a twin brother here, Earl Quoi – and Miles Hom. But they all went in to the Army Air Corps, and a lot of them ended up in the China-Burma-India theatre, some of them ended up in Europe. SHRAGGE: One in particular, who ended up in Europe, is Victor Schoon. He has a terrific story that I hope you could tell. LEE: He wasn’t one of those young men. And Victor, the interesting thing is how he got his name. The immigration officers usually were confused about Chinese names, because Chinese used their surname first and their other names second and third. So they would always take the third name and say you’re ‘Mr. so-and-so.’ And that’s how Ah Quinn got the name Quinn – because he’s really a Tom or a Hom. But anyway, the immigration officer evidently was of German ancestry and so he didn’t understand the Chinese names so he just gave him a German name “Schoon.” This turned out to be an advantage, because when he applied for officer training they thought he was German, so he was trained to be a pilot to fly B-17s. And of course no Chinese before had ever been allowed to be a pilot. SHRAGGE: Victor Schoon had a very distinguished career. He flew 50 missions in his B-17 over Germany. LEE: Yeah, this was out of Italy, and 50 missions and after completing the 50 missions every one of his crewmembers was given a medal. SHRAGGE: The Distinguished Flying Cross? LEE: Right. Except he did not receive it. SHRAGGE: And did he ever earn recognition for that later in his life? LEE: No. And a number of us have told him, you really ought to go to VA and appeal that, because I’m sure today that they would rectify that. He says, well, it’s too late now and it’s not worth it, the effort. SHRAGGE: In your project, how many Chinese-American WWII veterans have you found in San Diego? LEE: Oh, I think I’ve gotten about 50-some that I’ve registered. SHRAGGE: It’s a great project, and it’s one that tells us a lot about our heritage, about the nature of life in the city, the nature of life in WWII, and I want to thank you very much for the work that you’ve done. LEE: You’re welcome. SHRAGGE: Now you were born and lived in a small farming community in Iowa, but joined the army in 1941 and came out here to Camp Callan. What was it like coming to a place like La Jolla, a place like the Torrey Pines bluff, did you ever see anything like that before? FRANK BURGER: No, and I’d never seen the ocean. And that was really exciting to us landlubbers SHRAGGE: Where were you and what were you doing on December 7th 1941, the day that Pearl Harbor was attacked? BURGER (Veteran): Well you know they always quarantine you, particularly in those days, and we found out that one way to get off the base was to join the church choir. Of course none of us could sing, but we joined the church choir anyway. We were just sitting down to eat in the afternoon when the report came over the radio that Pearl Harbor had been attacked. SHRAGGE: What did you do then? BURGER: The radio put out information that we should stay if we weren’t on the base, we should stay where we were. So they called us in by companies, and we went in after dark. And we had to walk down and light a match to find where our barracks was because by that time they had blankets hung up over the windows and absolutely no light. SHRAGGE: But it wasn’t long after that that you joined the Army Air Corps. So off you went. Now you were part of the 8th Air Force, based in England, flying missions into Germany. BURGER: No, in Italy I was in the 15th Air Force. SHRAGGE: Ok, then flying that in from northern and eastern Europe from there on a B-24. BURGER: Yes. SHRAGGE: And how many missions did you fly before the next great event? BURGER: I got credit for 9. And if you made 9, then you were an old timer. SHRAGGE: And what happened then? BURGER: Well we got shot down over our target in Vienna, and we went in with a 4-engine bomber and came out with a 2, and both of them were on one side. So we weren’t going to be in the air for very long. The engineer was wounded pretty bad and we were going down so I put a chute on him and another guy and I dropped him out with instructions. Then we all jumped in our parachutes and we were pretty close to the ground, some of us, when we got out of the plane. SHRAGGE: Well you made it to the ground and then you were captured. BURGER: I got caught in Budapest, by the Gestapo. And from there, they sent me to a POW camp in what was part of Germany, in Poland about twenty-five to thirty miles from the North Sea. SHRAGGE: How long were you in that prison camp all together? BURGER: That one, I was only in about two and a half months and then they transferred me on a hospital train because I was suffering from shrapnel, in particular in my legs so they sent me to another camp up on the Baltic, then we were liberated by the Russians there on May 1st so I went down on October the 13th on a Friday, so I was actually a prisoner for about eight months. VICENTE RODRIGUEZ (Veteran): I was born in 1950 in a small city south of Lu Sun in the Philippines, Which is Naga city. And I moved to the city of Manila and went to college and worked and ended up being a recruit in the United States Navy. IRIS ENGSTRAND: Well how were you recruited for the United States Navy? RODRIGUEZ: The process is fairly simple, you send a 6x4” photo, you put your information behind and you mail it. Then they take the pictures and they send you a letter to come and take the test. And the test consists of written, verbalization, language, and a little it of math. And if you pass that, you go for an interview that same day. ENGSTRAND: Well Vicente, tell me about your first enlistment and where did you go when you first got into the Navy? RODRIGUEZ: Well the trip started from Subic Bay to Clark Airbase, Yokota Air Force base, Anchorage Alaska, and Travis Air Force base, Treasure Island, and San Diego recruit training command. ENGSTRAND: Were you here in San Diego at the Naval training center? RODRIGUEZ: Yes, I was a recruit trained here and I was with company 827. ENGSTRAND: I see that you had some other very interesting experiences. Now which of the wars have you been fighting in our involvement overseas? RODRIGUEZ: The end of Vietnam was the evacuation, but I wasn’t really in, but I was more in the Desert Shield and Desert Storm. That was in the 90s. ENGSTRAND: Your family must have missed you while you were gone, did you keep some letters going home? RODRIGUEZ: Yeah. During those times the only way to communicate is by mail. By phone was quite expensive, so there’s always a lot of letter writing, telling stories, and also giving the news about, especially, when the ship is going back for homecoming. ENGSTRAND: Tell me a little bit about those letters. RODRIGUEZ: I mention a lot about what we do and how the planes are being recovered on the aircraft carriers. Also I mention in my letter at one time that during the first Iranian crisis we were there, and 10 years later we were back for Desert Storm. And that place – the Iranian Gulf, and South Asia – is really a spot that has a lot of turmoil and a lot of life has been lost over there, just to make sure that they would understand freedom and democracy. You know, when the ship is coming back, you know, you’re so excited you write letters. In fact one of the letters indicates if we travel 14 knots, we will be in San Diego in 45 days. That’s how far we go, you know. ENGSTRAND: Well I’m sure you’re very glad, and your family’s glad when you do finally land and the 45 days are over. RODRIGUEZ: And it’s always a great reunion. ABE SHRAGGE: Downtown San Diego has historically been a place where soldiers, sailors and marines passed through on their way to some distant outpost. We have been incredibly fortunate to find a group of portraits of young men and women taken in a downtown photography studio during the Korean War. A find like this can generate some wonderful oral history, as we found out when we tracked down Bill Orcutt at his home in Talmadge.” BILL ORCUTT (Veteran): I’m Bill Orcutt, come on it. SHRAGGE: How do you do Mr. Orcutt, very nice to meet you. ORCUTT: Come on in. SHRAGGE: Thank you. SHRAGGE: Recently we found a collection of photographs that were taken in San Diego, presumably during the late 1940s and 1950s from the WWII era and into the Korean War era, and we found this picture and we found a number on the back, we looked in the log book and we matched up the number on the picture on the log book and we found the name, Beverly Orcutt and we looked in the phone book, called the number, found you, and I would like to ask you, is this a picture of you? ORCUTT: I was just recalled at the time, at the time this picture was taken. SHRAGGE: Now recalled, had you been in the service previously? ORCUTT: Yes in WWII. I was a Sergeant in the Army Airways Communication System, which is part of the Army Air Corps. SHRAGGE: So you’ve spent a significant portion of your life right here. An amazing stroke of luck that we could find you, your picture all in the same place. ORCUTT: The surprising thing thought is that I was up in L.A. for thirty-five of those years. SHRAGGE: And in Korea what did you do? ORCUTT: We had observation posts and bunkers and our photographers would photograph the enemy territory and then the Intel would compare them to previous photos to tell where activity was. SHRAGGE: Now there are a number of pictures of men stringing wire… was this telephone, telegraph, high-speed Internet? ORCUTT: No high-speed Internet in those days, those were telephone wires and that was the signal corps job, stringing wire. SHRAGGE: Was there much infrastructure like that in Korea already or were you really building this from scratch? ORCUTT: Um mostly building from scratch, there wasn’t much there they weren’t very sophisticated. SHRAGGE: So this was in a sense bringing Korea a little bit into the modern age. There are a number of photos in your book of people, children in fact, elderly people as well…what were living conditions like for the Korean people during the war? ORCUTT: Pretty bad, pretty basic you know, they had a roof over their heads and they ate rice and stuff. A couple of people I asked (people that could speak English) what they thought of the war and they said we don’t care about the war it’s your war and it kind of shocked me you know as a young military guy I was surprised that it was our war not theirs SHRAGGE: And what did that mean to you? How would you interpret that? ORCUTT: It disturbed me, because why are we here? You know, we thought that we were helping them fend off the North Koreans but I think they considered us outsiders. SHRAGGE: This is a very disturbing image there’s no information on the back can you tell us please what’s going on there ORCUTT: One of my photographers shot this and he called it the Jazz singer and the reason is the guy has his mouth open and he looks like he’s singing but he’s really yelling so he doesn’t hurt his eardrums as he’s firing the artillery. This is the kind of war that was going on when I was there, an artillery war and a scouting war. SHRAGGE: One of the most remarkable aspects of this collection is how well its been preserved and the fact that you took the pictures you identified them you sent them home to your wife who took care of them provides us with an amazingly rich record of events that have largely been forgotten I really want to commend you for the effort that you and your wife made in doing this ORCUTT: Thank you. Commend my wife because she’s the one that kept the collection I had forgotten a lot of this stuff. SHRAGGE: Well I’m very glad that we were able to bring this to life and I want to thank you again. SHRAGGE: Thank you. SHRAGGE: One of the lessons history teaches us is that the military will be part of San Diego’s DNA for decades to come. Our story is entwined with the history of the nation and the world. And it’s up to us to preserve and tell that story.