By Raquel C. Garza
As a child, Jesus Ochoa once spent the 16th of September, a Mexican holiday celebrating independence from Spain, at home with his family. When he returned to school the next day, his teacher admonished him, saying missing classes was inappropriate because he was an American, not a Mexican.
When Ochoa returned from World War II, September 16 took on a new meaning -- he came back to the United States a veteran after being injured in battle.
"I came back [in] 1944, on the 16th of September, a Mexican holiday. I got back in San Francisco, under the Golden Gate Bridge, a beautiful sight," he said.
The oldest of five children, Ochoa grew up in San Diego, Calif., during the Great Depression. He helped augment his family's income by selling the San Diego Sun newspaper for 3 cents a copy after school. His mother, Isabel Ybarra, worked at the Van Camp's fish cannery to support her family after her second husband, Silvero Ortega, passed away. Ochoa remembers receiving public assistance, walking to school and taking tacos for lunch because his family couldn’t afford bread for sandwiches.
Ochoa maintains it wasn’t the children, but the parents who suffered the effects of the failed economy.
"During the Depression ... we didn't know much about desperation, and the parents were the ones that really suffered," he said. "They were the ones that had to fight and find out where they were going to support the family and how to put food on the table."
Although Ochoa recalls only bringing home 5 or 10 cents a day from selling newspapers, the job did have one advantage -- while he sold his newspapers, he met movie stars such as Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, John Wayne and Tim McCoy, an actor who starred in Westerns during the 1930s and 1940s.
But Ochoa's passion was, and still is, baseball. An avid ballplayer, he continued to play the game until a few years ago when old age, weak knees and a heart condition forced him to stop.
He first played the sport at the Neighborhood House -- a place where the community could come together to socialize and receive assistance -- with boys from around the barrio; a coach helped the boys develop their skills. Ochoa played baseball throughout his school days. He even had the opportunity to try out for a major league team while he worked in a Civilian Conservation Corps camp in California in 1940. Established by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933 as part of the New Deal, CCC camps provided employment for many men during the Depression.
"When I went into the camp, I was let out early because the Cincinnati Reds were interested in me, and they sent me to one of their spring trainings," Ochoa said.
The Reds, however, told him he didn’t have the hitting skills needed to make it in the big leagues.
"The manager called me in and said he had to let me go," Ochoa recalled. "He said that my type of hitting was not appropriate for a first baseman."
But Ochoa said he didn’t feel cheated out of the chance to play and that he agreed with the decision of the manager, who told him to work on his batting skills, because they wanted him to try him out again when he improved.
He had another chance to try out for the major leagues when a scout for the Brooklyn Dodgers was in San Diego, but he never made the practice. Having just returned from the Reds tryout, Ochoa felt he wasn’t ready for the major leagues.
The bombing of Pearl Harbor was described by President Roosevelt as "a day which will live in infamy." Ochoa remembers that fateful Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941, because he was playing a baseball game for the Neighborhood House against the Navy team. During the game, a Navy truck came and took the Navy ballplayers away.
"I wondered what the heck happened. We were in the middle of the game," Ochoa recalled. "They said, 'Oh, the Japanese just bombed Pearl Harbor.'"
Ochoa said although most of the people at the ballpark didn't know where Pearl Harbor was located, he did. He remembered an incident from a year before while in the CCC camps: A friend's father was in the Navy and had described Pearl Harbor as an impregnable fortress.
Ochoa enlisted in the Marine Corps on Nov. 10, 1942. He first served as a naval prison guard before becoming a member of the 4th Raider Battalion, 4th Marines. The U.S. Marine Raiders are one of the predecessors for the military's Special Forces. They were created as a result of Evans F. Carlson's experiences in China and the insistence of William J. Donovan, senior adviser on intelligence.
Carlson was convinced that guerilla warfare was the best tactic for fighting the Japanese. He had the support of Roosevelt, as well as Major (later Lt. Col.) James Roosevelt, the president's son. Donovan also pushed for guerilla forces to infiltrate occupied territory and assist resistance groups.
Lt. Col. Merrit A. "Red Mike" Edson was picked by Gen. Holland M. Smith to command the battalion, renamed the 1st Separate Battalion on Jan. 7, 1942. The 2nd Separate Battalion, headed by Carlson and James Roosevelt, came into existence on Feb. 4, 1942.
Ochoa was a member of the 4th Battalion of James Roosevelt, also known as Carlson's Raiders. The group's training focused heavily on weapons practice, hand-to-hand combat, demolitions and physical conditioning that emphasized long hikes.
"I had heard about Carlson's Raiders and I liked them very much, and that's what I really wanted to get into," Ochoa said.
He recalled that during the interview process, he was asked many questions, including whether he would have qualms about killing Japanese soldiers. He told his interviewers he wouldn’t.
On the battlefield, however, the death of one Japanese soldier would affect him greatly.
"I shot one Japanese ... about 10, 15 feet away from me. And he wasn't the first one; I had shot some before that," Ochoa said. "But this one here, he looked so darn young ... and I thought about my brother Lalo. He had just joined the Marines, and I said, 'My God, he's just about my brother's age.'"
The Raider battalions were disbanded in February of 1944 and formed into the 4th Marine [Infantry] Regiment. Ochoa served with the regiment until being sent back to the U.S., where he was stationed at a Marine base in Barstow, Calif.; he was discharged on Nov. 9, 1945.
Ochoa maintains he was proud to have fought against the Japanese, an enemy he perceived as more experienced in the art of war. While stationed in the Pacific, he recalled missing a lot of things, including his mother and the food from her kitchen, but he knew he was there to serve a greater purpose.
"I had a job to do. I was training, and that's what I was trained to do, and so [it] didn't really enter my mind," Ochoa said.
More than 50 years later, he says he appreciates every day he has spent since his return from the war.
"Every day is a beautiful day. And I thank God I am here," Ochoa said.
Like the day Pearl Harbor was attacked, he also recalls where he was when he found out the atomic bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima. On Aug. 5 (which, he explained, was Aug. 6 in Japan), he married his wife, Henrietta, in San Diego.
After the war, Ochoa worked for the civil service, participating in an apprentice program that trained him as an aircraft electrician. He and Henrietta have three children and live in San Diego.
Mr. Ochoa was interviewed in San Diego, California, on April 6, 2001, by Rene Zambrano.