By E.J. Urbanczyk
Alfred Valenzuela was an 18-year-old sailor in 1943 when he found his older brother in Hawaii.
Valenzuela recalled looking for Claudio, eight years his senior, at Schofield Barracks, a United States installation.
“He [Claudio] was very surprised when he saw me: this 18-year-old kid, the youngest one of the family, in front of his barracks … asking for him,” Valenzuela recalled.
The two brothers, from a small town in deep West Texas, had lunch and reminisced about their family and childhood. It would be the last time Valenzuela would see his brother, before Claudio’s unit, the 165th Infantry Regiment, 27th Infantry Division, shipped off to Okinawa.
The older brother had a premonition.
“[He said,] ‘I’m not gonna make it, Fred,’” Valenzuela recalled. “’You’re gonna have to take care of Mom and Dad.’”
Claudio Valenzuela died in the Okinawa invasion on April 21, 1945.
At the age of 17, Valenzuela knew he wanted to follow in his two older brothers’ footsteps. But, with her two older sons already in the military, Valenzuela’s mother, Juanita Quiroz Valenzuela, refused to sign for permission to enlist early.
Valenzuela enlisted in the Navy the day after his 18th birthday.
The youngest of eight children, Valenzuela was born June 15, 1925. The family resided in the small West Texas city of Marathon, 250 miles southeast of El Paso, Texas. When Valenzuela was 6 months old, his family moved to Marfa, 57 miles west, where his father, Anastacio Valenzuela, worked as a foreman for the Southern Pacific Railroad Company.
“We had a wonderful childhood. We enjoyed doing things together,” Valenzuela recalled.
In particular, he remembers playing his saxophone.
Much of his early life passed during the Great Depression.
“We were poor, but healthy,” said Valenzuela proudly. “We went through the Depression like everyone else. We just did the best we could with what we could get.”
At Marfa High School, Valenzuela played the alto saxophone in the marching band and was a member of the school football team.
It was during this time he says he discovered his love for jitterbug dancing. He enjoyed boogying to the music of Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey; Tuxedo Junction and In the Mood were two of his favorites.
Valenzuela would later credit the jitterbug with bringing him and the woman who would be his wife together. He recalls asking a shy young lady, Sara Frances Garcia, to go to a dance with him one evening.
They didn’t especially like each other, Valenzuela says, so their initial plan was to dance one dance, take different partners, then reunite for the last dance before he took her home.
They quickly realized they were great dancing partners, however, and spent the entire evening as a couple.
“Sara was a great dancer and could dance everything,” Valenzuela explained.
When Valenzuela was 15 years old, his older brother, Claudio, joined the military in 1940. His brother Raymond also served during the war – in the Army Air Corp.
“Well, everybody was leaving for the service. That was the big thing,” Valenzuela said. “You gotta get up there and do your part.”
The Navy’s biggest attraction for Valenzuela was its motto: “Join the Navy, see the world.” Through his service, he was able to visit Hawaii, where he rejoined Claudio.
Once Valenzuela arrived in Hawaii, he was eventually assigned to an oil tanker named the Suamico Cowanesque (AO-79).
Valenzuela spent the remainder of the war on the Cowanesque, participating in seven invasions as part of a naval fleet traveling from Pear Harbor to Japan.
One of Valenzuela’s memos, collected from years of naval conventions, describes the ship:
“The USS Suamico contained 140,000 barrels of crude oil, diesel, and airplane fuel. It was what they called a ‘war bomb.’”
The Cowanesque was home to more than 300 other soldiers during the war, their bunks above the stored oil. Normally assigned to fueling the ships of the Navy’s 7th Fleet, once an invasion began, the Cowanesque would retreat to collect more oil before returning to the ships.
“[On] our ship, mostly everybody was under 20 years old. There were just a bunch of kids that didn’t know any better,” Valenzuela said. “We just did what we were told.”
He went in as a striker, the lowest position on board, and eventually became a store keeper. Valenzuela recalls being in charge of the ship store, where sailors could purchase candy, cigarettes, clothes and shoes.
At age 19, he was also a site-setter aboard the ship for an anti-aircraft gun of at least 25 mm. A site-setter was a sailor in charge of directing the barrel aim of the gun both horizontally and vertically.
Since Valenzuela had worn glasses since age 11, he says he picked up the nickname “the blindest site-setter.” When he was asked to take off his glasses, he memorized ahead of time how many rotations would set the 5-inch gun in perfect position, he says.
During one invasion, a Japanese kamikaze plane was shot out of the sky above the ship.
“They claim [that] it was my gun, or our gun, that did the shooting of the plane,” he said.
Valenzuela and crew experienced many close calls during the war, as Japan knew of the strategic importance of the oil tankers. During another incident, a Japanese fighter plane was shot down and its pilot captured by Valenzuela’s naval group. Valenzuela was in charge of watching the prisoner and keeping him under guard before he was transferred to a larger ship for interrogation.
Also, weather made the sea turbulent and unpredictable. Valenzuela and his fellow crewmembers experienced two typhoons off the coast of Japan. Large waves, heavy wind and lighting created unpleasant days and, oftentimes, sleepless nights aboard the ship.
“That was the worst thing I could ever go through. Never again,” Valenzuela said.
Before Japan’s surrender, Valenzuela remembers fueling the USS Missouri, another ship in his fleet, upon which the Japanese surrender was signed on August 21, 1945.
“It was incredible how you feel when something like that happens,” said Valenzuela of his reaction to first hearing of the end of the war.
He was discharged from the Navy on March 11, 1946, with the rank of Petty Officer First Class, and having earned a Bronze Battle Star ribbon Philippine Liberation Ribbon, and ribbons for his service in the Gilbert Islands, Marshall Islands, Saipan Iwo Jima and Okinawa.
Using the GI Bill, Valenzuela attended Draughon’s Business College and St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, Texas. He married Sara Garcia on Feb. 16, 1947, and the couple had three children – Alfred, Debra and Claudia. At the time of Valenzuela’s interview, he and Sara had seven grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.
Mr. Valenzuela was interviewed in San Antonio, Texas, on August 28, 2006, by Raquel C. Garza.