By Layne Victoria Lynch
As 80-year-old Neftali L. Zendejas looked back on the memories of his childhood before his service in both the Korean and Vietnam wars, he reminisced about how he knew he wanted to work with aircrafts at an early age.
Way back when his father was working the farm of a Japanese family that had been sent to an internment camp during World War II, Zendejas said he ventured into a nearby airfield, to admire a Lockheed P-38 Lightning aircraft.
“I remember seeing it fly, and I would drop whatever I was doing so I could see it. That was eventually what caused me to come into the Air Force,” he said.
After finishing high school in June 1947, Zendejas became a welder in a factory. But his vacation plans wound up taking him somewhere he didn’t expect.
“I don’t remember what or how, but I went to the recruiting station to inquire about joining the service,” Zendejas said.
The recruiter asked questions and requested three letters of recommendation to help him begin his career in the Air Force.
“I didn’t want to get drafted. I had no knowledge of the Korean War beginning, because the Second World War had just ended,” Zendejas said.
By the time he was about to leave for basic training, Zendejas still hadn’t told his mother of his decision. His mother, however, had already figured it out:
One night during dinner, she confronted him and asked when he was planning to tell her about enlisting. Laughing, Zendejas recalled responding that he was going to inform her upon finishing supper.
Before he was born, Zendejas’ mother, Ofilia Luna Zendejas, a stay-at-home mom, and his father, Antonio Zendejas, who irrigated orchards, emigrated from Michoacán, Mexico, to El Paso, Texas, and eventually made their way to Del Mar, Calif. Zendejas’ family followed the changing produce seasons, as his father also picked fruit – oranges, strawberries, lemons, avocados ¬– and other produce in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif. Such work helped keep food on the family’s table from the early 1930s to the late 1940s, a period that included the Great Depression.
Despite attending classes with a significant number of Latino children, Zendejas was not allowed to speak his family’s native tongue. Everyone was expected to learn English at school.
If students were caught speaking Spanish, they were punished. For example, Zendejas recalled being spanked as a little boy after his teacher, Miss Gonzales, caught him speaking Spanish with a fellow student.
“I can’t say that they were good years because they were hard, not knowing a lot of English. I always struggled,” Zendejas said.
Zendejas was 12 years old when the United States entered WWII right after the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor. He remembered the support the country and his family gave to the war effort.
“The whole community was united to doing the same thing [for WWII], as opposed to what happened in later wars,” Zendejas said.
Although WWII is widely known as a time when the country united against common enemies, during the Korean and Vietnam war periods, civilians and the government were racked by internal strife.
“I had my mission to do and the civilian people had theirs. Their conception of the war is different than mine because I didn’t question mine. I did [my service],” Zendejas said.
During the Great Depression, Zendejas said his father picked up cans, bottles, rags, old tires and any kind of metal he could find to donate to the war cause. Making his own contribution, Zendejas recalled threshing plums in 1945 as a 16 year old, so the plums’ pits could be extracted for oil and used for military machinery.
Zendejas also recalled the day that same year when the conflict ended with Japan’s unconditional surrender. On that Aug. 14, someone at work simply walked up and told him WWII had ended, and he could go home.
Zendejas enlisted in the Air Force on Feb. 11, 1948, and completed his basic training in May 1948 at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio. On Feb 15, 1951, Sgt. Zendejas went to the Itazuke Air Base in Japan to begin his service in the Korean War, which had begun in June 1950.
Since most of the fighting was in the Korean Peninsula’s northern section, Zendejas said his team’s job was to introduce jets into the war. During his service, his base was never attacked, said Zendejas, who recalled working on the aircrafts with the help of mechanics.
At the end of his first term of service, from February 1948 to February 1951, Zendejas was awarded a Good Conduct Medal for exemplary behavior by the 27th Fighter-Escort Wing. Despite not seeing combat, he said he felt disappointed when President Harry S. Truman fired Gen. Douglas MacArthur in April 1951. The United Nations forces led by the United States would not succeed in the “police action” in Korea after this decision, Zendejas said.
“We got as far as the 38th parallel, and that’s what it is today. We’re not finished yet. That war was fought through Congress and not by the generals of the wars. I don’t think America wanted to take control,” he said.
Shortly after the armistice was signed July 27, 1953, ending the hostilities between North and South Korea, Zendejas returned as a staff sergeant to Bergstrom Air Force Base, in Austin, Texas.
With the loss of nearly 37,000 U.S. service members, Zendejas said, he looks back on Korea as the forgotten war.
“I was never really given credit through the military for doing what I was supposed to do. Last year, finally, I received a certificate from the President of South Korea, after 50 years, because [before] we were not allowed to wear any ribbons given by that country. What can you do now? It’s too late to do anything, so you just live with it.”
Zendejas was offered a job as a clerk, including typing, purchasing supplies and filing orders, because his next assignment at the Matagorda Island Air Force Base bombing and gunnery range on the Texas Gulf Coast was not ready to be filled. During this time, Zendejas decided one week to take a trip down the Gulf Coast to Port O’Connor, between Galveston and Corpus Christi. After buying a ticket to a dance in Port O’Connor Plaza, clipping it to his collar and walking in, however, someone told him he was not welcome.
“I said, ‘Why not? I have my ticket,’” recalled Zendejas, who said the experience still infuriates him. “They escorted me off the floor, segregated me. Mexicans were not allowed there. That was the first time I experienced segregation, and it was not a good feeling. It made me angry. I had my uniform on and even that didn’t matter.”
Zendejas said he called his commander and threatened to walk all the way to Bergstrom in Austin, about 180 miles away, after which point Zendejas’ commander picked him up and took him back to the island.
“I had no idea how far it was gonna be, but I did say that,” said Zendejas over the telephone after his interview.
Following some time at Castle Air Force Base in the Atwater-Merced, Calif., area, Zendejas relocated to Biggs Air Force Base in El Paso, Texas, where he recalled receiving B-36 aircraft training with the 810th Air Division for about a year. At that point, his military career path veered from aircraft welding to jet mechanics, he said over the phone, adding that he ultimately ended up as a jet-engine technician.
In 1966, Zendejas got his orders to go to Vietnam. The Vietnam War was a war within itself, and quite different from the Korean conflict or WWII in Zendejas’ eyes.
“I arrived there [shortly after the Tet Offensive], and there were a lot of buildings burning, a lot of destruction, a lot of chaos,” he said.
His work on aircraft included heavy maintenance, changing engines and washing down the aircraft. His preparation of the aircraft would allow pilots to fly out and take food, water and equipment to U.S. soldiers. Unless a plane had crashed and was completely demolished, he said it was his job to fix it and get it back in the sky as soon as possible.
Sometimes, banged up planes would come to his base with the bodies of dead soldiers still inside, said Zendejas, who recalled turning over the dog tags of the deceased on several occasions.
“I’d go and flip the names, and [they were] a lot of Mexicans. It was hard to see a bunch of young men [die],” he said.
With the Vietnamese right outside, Zendejas said he was always afraid. At times, he would carry both a .30-caliber rifle and a machinegun.
“The only thing we had between the military grounds and the Vietnamese was barbed wire and beer cans hanging from [the wire], because when they would rattle [the fence], you could hear the cans rattle,” he said, recalling “a sense of danger in Vietnam that [I] didn’t have in Korea.”
After serving in Vietnam for a year, from 1967 to 1968, Zendejas said the chaos and violence led him to seek his discharge.
When he and other soldiers returned home, Zendejas recalled their arrival being kept a secret; by then, troops were flown back in civilian clothing so the public would not see them.
In the midst of such domestic conflict and fury over the war, Zendejas said he felt discouraged.
“It was a bad experience. I didn’t want to go through that anymore. Since I’ve been out, I’m more peaceful,” said Zendejas, who was discharged at the rank of master sergeant at McChord Air Force Base, in Tacoma, Wash., on Jan. 31, 1969.
He then decided to move his family to Austin, because he wanted his children to graduate from Austin high schools and pursue their own paths, he said.
Immediately after his discharge from the Air Force, Zendejas started working at the U.S. Postal Service, and eventually became a Veteran Service Officer. One of few Latino VSOs since WWII, he said he stuck with the job for 18 years
The work was something in which he took a lot of pride, reaching out to veterans and their spouses by helping them file disability claims, use employment services and get education benefits.
“[Veterans] have this instinct to say, ‘I’m doing OK.’ They are aching. They are hurting. There are so many that don’t know [we] have these facilities,” Zendejas said.
Despite the difficulty of serving in two strenuous wars, Zendejas still recalled at the time of his interview what brought him to the Air Force in the first place – the remarkable plane he saw as a young boy.
“I knew I would never get to fly, but I wanted to touch [aircraft] and work on them, and that was my goal,” Zendejas said.
Mr. Zendejas was interviewed in Austin, Texas, on January 15, 2010, by Raquel C. Garza.