By Cheryl Smith Kemp
When military recruiters showed up at the local Post Office in early August of 1942, Roberto De la Cruz saw it as a ticket out of the Rio Grande Valley, an escape from a lonely laborious life in South Texas.
So when a recruiter asked the 15-year-old how old he was, De la Cruz said he had just turned 18 on August 5.
A day or two later, De la Cruz and one other San Benito guy, Jerry Tarwater, were on a train headed for Houston, to get their Navy physicals.
“Everybody back then was either interested in joining the Army or the Navy,” De la Cruz said. “[I]t was going to give us a chance to learn something about what other people did, you know. … I learned so much just from the war, you know, and the places that I went to, that I would have never dreamed of knowing before then.”
Ordered on a train to San Diego, Calif., for boot camp the next day, De la Cruz began a new, more worldly period of his life, one in which he was around people from outside of Texas and Mexico. After boot camp, De la Cruz was put on the USS Henderson, which sailed to Hawaii. Worried about submarines attacking them while crossing the ocean, the newbie sailors were ordered to take turns looking through binoculars for subs.
“It took us nine days to get from San Francisco to Hawaii … me and practically every recruit that was on that USS Henderson got seasick,” he recalled, adding that they’d often hand off the binoculars when one of them needed to throw up.
In Hawaii, he was assigned to aircraft carrier the USS Saratoga, on which he served from the end of October in 1942 until September of 1945, and from which he saw, among other places, the Fiji Islands; New Caledonia, where he remembers helping defend the first Pacific Front landing made by U.S. Marines; Nauru; Bougainville; the Indian Ocean, into which few other U.S. ships traveled during WWII; even parts of Australia, including Tasmania; and Iwo Jima.
“I really never had time to think about what I miss[ed], you know ... I always thought that maybe someday I would return,” said De la Cruz when asked if he ever got homesick. “You’re at sea.”
The austerity and hard labor inherent in rank-and-file military life was nothing new to De la Cruz. To start off, both of his parents died when he was only two, at which point he and his three older siblings were sent to different relatives. De la Cruz was raised largely by his maternal grandmother, Celia Garza Villarreal, until he was eight, and then by an aunt after his grandmother died.
By the time De la Cruz joined the Navy, he’d already been working for several years, starting out hawking his grandmother’s chickens’ eggs door-to-door in his neighborhood for 2.5 cents apiece. She’d also send him to the corner store to exchange eggs for rice, beans, sugar and other ingredients.
“And they would put all this in little bags that I would bring home to my grandmother,” De la Cruz recalled. … “And that’s how we made a living.”
Other ways he made a living as a young boy were picking cotton and shining shoes -- generally for 5 cents, but sometimes for as low as 3 cents if he was desperate enough.
“When I was growing up, I didn’t have money to buy shoes” until the sixth grade. “It’s just one of those things in those days,” said De la Cruz of the Great Depression.
One time when he was shining shoes, a customer noticed he didn’t have a sweater or a coat. The man ended up giving De la Cruz his World War I uniform, which quickly became De la Cruz’s unofficial school uniform.
“[T]hey kept me warm, you know. And I wore them until they were worn out,” he said of the pants, jacket and the rest of the wool uniform.
For food, he and other people would go to the local packing sheds when crops were getting loaded up, “and anything that dropped to the ground, we would pick it up and take it home ... and that helped us live from day to day,” De la Cruz said.
By the time he was 8 years old, he was selling Spanish-language newspaper El Sol for 2 cents, one of which he got to keep and the other he gave to the paper’s owner, Carlos Antunes. Before long, De la Cruz was learning how to operate El Sol’s printing press, as well as a smaller one Carlos owned, on which he printed circulars, invitations and announcements.
On the smaller press, Carlos also published versos – informational like news stories, but written in Spanish in the form of poetry – and sold them for 5 cents apiece. Every time he was able to sell a verso, he says he got to keep 2 cents and the remaining three went to the print shop. He recalls memorizing the first verse of whatever verso he was trying to sell, still remembering one so clearly he recites it in Spanish. It’s about a young man from Los Indios, a neighboring town of San Benito, who was shot through a screen window while sleeping when De la Cruz was nine years old:
El dia 6 de septienbre
(The day of September 6)
Fecha con sangre manchada
Murio Benito Treviño por una mala jugada
(Died Benito Treviño from a bad joke)
Era un hombre muy decente y de muy buen Corazon
(He was a very decent and good-hearted man)
Lo mataron discuidado y lo mataron a traición
(They killed him carelessly and they killed him out of betrayal)
By the time De la Cruz was 11, he was working for weekly publication the Cameron County News. He recalls knowing how to feed paper into the rotary printing press, printing on both sides then folding the paper down. He says he also worked for Spanish-language newspaper El Progresso at the time, where he ran the press.
“All this I was doing after school was out or during the vacations,” he said.
Working in printing afforded De la Cruz a little leisure, as one of the presses by which he was employed printed circulars that advertised movies playing at the local Juarez Theater. He would get free entry to whatever was being advertised, provided he swept the theater’s floor.
“The only fun that I recall having was going to the movies,” said De la Cruz, adding that he loved watching the films of Argentine Carlos Gardel, widely considered the father of the Tengo, as well as the films of Mexico’s Jorge Negrete and Cantinflas.
De la Cruz also labored at a hamburger stand making burgers, and put in time at Susie’s Steakhouse, where he recalls doing dishes and cleaning for a dollar a day for 12-hour shifts.
And then Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.
“I was listening to the radio news and I didn’t even know where Pearl Harbor was. But 10 months later, a Navy recruiter came to San Benito,” said De la Cruz, who, like so many young people of his generation, was eager to join the war effort.
The giant USS Saratoga carried up to 2,120 men, who, among other jobs, worked as machinists, boiler tenders, gunners, cooks, laundrymen, even ice-cream men, as the Saratoga had an area where GIs could indulge in a scoop.
De la Cruz was in the third of four divisions on the Saratoga. Everybody in his division took care of the third battery, manning and repairing guns, De la Cruz says.
“You’re always closer to the bunch that hangs with you because they’re from your own division,” he said.
He worked as the hot-shell man on one of 16 5-inch 38-caliber guns, meaning he was one of eight men on top of the battery, catching the hot shell casings shooting out as it was being fired, to prevent them from hitting the men passing ammunition behind the huge gun.
“Either I was the best one or nobody else wanted the job,” said De la Cruz, who explained in writing after his interview that he held the sometimes-treacherous position for three years, longer than anyone else on the ship.
The job of hot-shell man “is more dangerous [than many others,] even during practice. While I was on the Saratoga[,] one seaman (another hot shell man) was killed when his leg went under the bridge of the gun that was elevated while firing at an elevated target,” he added.
The Saratoga’s main purpose when De la Cruz was aboard it was to help the Marines with landings on islands in the Pacific that the Japanese had occupied. One way the Saratoga assisted was by enabling military aircraft to bomb and strafe the islands before the Marines would attempt going ashore.
“All we did was man the guns, practice the shooting, eat and be prepared to go and help the landings when they took place. And it was, like I say, you didn’t go home until things were done,” De la Cruz said.
Fortunately for De la Cruz, when the ship got hit by five kamikazes while helping with the Feb. 21, 1945, landing on Iwo Jima, his gun, which he was perched atop of, was spared.
“I could see everything above me. I saw the first Japanese airplane that was coming straight at us,” said De la Cruz, flipping through photos of the disaster.
Among the pictures is one of him with a lot of other sailors at a burial ceremony aboard the Saratoga. Another photo is of somebody’s legs “and the rest of the body you can’t see at all,” De la Cruz narrated. Another image features shipmates’ remains wrapped up in white mattress covers and lined up in rows. “Here’s a picture when we’re burying the dead at sea, you know,” continued De la Cruz, who noted that two of his friends “who used to go out with me were lost in that fight. … Those are the things that you remember, some of those people that stayed behind that you used to go out with.”
Although De la Cruz recalls being the only Latino in his company, he says he got along with almost everyone.
“When I was going through boot camp, they used to call me Chico,” he said.
But once he got on the Saratoga, everybody addressed him by his last name, like everybody else.
“Oh, once in a [while] you find somebody who really tries to make remarks about you … there was one particular guy on the Saratoga that did that, but after a while, he just got tired I guess,” De la Cruz said.
The only time he was allowed to return home while in the Navy was in March of 1945, after the kamikaze attack.
“By August of ’45 we were heading back to Japan, getting ready for the invasion of Japan,” when the U.S. dropped the two atomic bombs, said De la Cruz, adding “we turned right around, and then we started coming back to the States.”
De la Cruz was discharged in late September of 1945, at the rank of Seaman First Class and 20 pounds heavier than when he enlisted. His only biological brother, Manuel De la Cruz, was already back in the States, as he had been wounded in the Normandy invasion. He spent the rest of his life in VA hospital in California, De la Cruz says.
Back in the Rio Grande Valley, De la Cruz got his high school diploma, took junior college classes in Brownsville, taught a high school algebra class for veterans and met his future wife, Nora Benavides De la Cruz, at a San Benito ice-cream parlor. At the time of his interview, De la Cruz and Nora had been married 59 years and had seven children and 15 grandchildren.
After they got married April 8, 1948, De la Cruz and Nora moved up to Austin, where he took engineering courses at the University of Texas. He dropped out when he ran out of GI-Bill money in 1952, but still managed to eventually find employment as an engineer with the Air Force. He was an engineering-data manager for the B-1 Bomber until he retired in 1979 at the rank of Major.
More than 60 years after coming home from the war, De la Cruz still communicates with some of his former shipmates. For example, he and a friend named Woody Walker correspond via e-mail. Woody was a career Navy man and older than De la Cruz. He filled some of the void left by De la Cruz’s father when he was so young.
“I always told Woody that he was my role model, because he exposed me to somebody who I would want to be like. He was a very firm individual; he was a very fair individual; he was very knowledgeable in what he did, and I always wanted to be like him,” De la Cruz said. “I tell him, ‘Woody, you are my role model.’”
Mr. De la Cruz was interviewed in Austin, Texas, on June 1, 2007, and June 26, 2007, by Raquel C. Garza.