By Jordan D. Schraeder
Working at Dodson’s Grocery in 1943, Raul “Roy” Portales dreamed of sailing the high seas. That year, the San Antonio native found a way to make that dream a reality: enlistment in the U.S. Navy. After three years of stocking and delivering groceries, Portales’ enlistment in the Navy on July 7, 1943, offered a change of scenery.
His father, Regino, had worked in the automobile industry until his death, when Roy was 13. Macedonia, Roy’s Mexican-born mother, stayed home to care for her family of four boys and three girls. Macedonia Portales did not support her son’s decision, and he needed her consent to enter the military as a minor. He was only 17, having been born on June 8, 1926.
“My mother was against it,” Portales said. “But I threatened that the government would come after her if she didn’t sign the papers. So she finally agreed.”
On the first day of his service, Portales and 100 other men walked to the train depot and began their trip to the San Diego Naval Station.
“Right then, I was sorry,” Portales laughed.
After a six-week training period in San Diego, California, Portales and his fellow sailors made their way to Seattle, Washington. He was assigned as seaman third class to the USS Grumium, a ship that was going to carry 500,000 barrels of gasoline to vessels fighting in the Pacific Ocean.
On the sea, Portales became the sailor he had always wanted to be, spending days painting the ship, mending ropes, and scouting for enemy ships and submarines. He recalled that only one other person on the ship was Latino, but he didn’t speak Spanish. Portales, who spoke little English when he enlisted, picked up the language from his shipmates.
Though the crew worked hard, they also played hard. There were few recreational activities aboard a ship in the middle of the Pacific, but Portales and his shipmates made do by reading books and sharing the one pingpong table on deck. Depending on the weather, movies could also be played on a screen outside.
On June 20, 1944, the USS Grumium converted to an aviation support ship, taking the crew into battle zones of the Pacific. The men, however, knew little about World War II’s progress. There were no radios on the ship.
Portales, who corresponded with his family and friends in San Antonio, along with his brother who was fighting in Europe, remembers having to leave out certain details.
“Your mail would be censored,” said Portales. “You couldn’t say where you were or what you were doing.”
Portales and his crew got the opportunity to see the war firsthand when the USS Grumium headed for the Okinawa battle zone. Out on the open sea, remnants of destroyed ships could be seen, the decks lined with body bags. Carnage of the war was everywhere.
“There were dead Japanese lying all over the islands. The smell was really bad,” Portales reflected. “When we got back on the ship, we couldn’t eat because of the smell. We lost our appetites.”
Docked in the harbor of Okinawa, Portales’ ship experienced its one and only battle against Japanese forces on April 6 and 7, 1944. Kamikaze planes dropped from the sky and launched suicide attacks on the anchored U.S. vessels.
Portales assumed his battle station, filling gun magazines and handing them to the gunner. Every gun aboard was in use as the planes came closer.
“A plane was so close we could see the pilot and traces of our bullets hitting the plane,” said Portales. “It hit the water only 50 to 100 yards away from our ship. It would have hit us.”
This harrowing experience made the crew all the more thankful when the captain announced over the public address system in 1945 that Japan had surrendered, ending the war. Portales recalls sailors throwing their hats in the air in celebration.
“We could now watch movies and smoke outside,” said Portales. “We didn’t have to worry about enemy ships spotting us anymore.”
Those anxious days were over, and the USS Grumium began its long voyage home. The ship stopped in Pearl Harbor, then crossed the Pacific, traveled through the Panama Canal and docked in Norfolk, Virginia, on Nov. 25, 1945.
After a 30-day leave in San Antonio with his family and friends, Portales reported to El Paso, where he was sent to Galveston and discharged as a boatswain’s mate third class in February 1946.
“Looking back, I should’ve stayed in the Navy for 30 years,” he said. “I would’ve had it made!”
Instead, Portales used his GI Bill benefits to buy a house. He had various jobs, including finishing floors and working as a milkman. He married Velia Quiroz, and the couple had five children: Raul, Oscar, Albert, Cecilia and Christina. Portales retired at age 62 and at the time of the interview was living in San Antonio.
Looking back at his WWII experience, Portales knows he was one of the lucky ones. His actual time as a sailor may not have equaled his childhood dreams, but it was worth it.
“I was lucky,” said Portales. “I wouldn’t take the experience and the things I learned back for a million dollars.”
Mr. Portales was interviewed by his niece, Patricia Portales, in San Antonio on May 21, 2008.