In their own words: Valley veterans remember military service (video)

The Fresno BeeMay 25, 2014 

Today, Americans honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice for our country.

Memorial Day began in 1868, three years after the end of the Civil War. What was then called Decoration Day served as a time for the nation to decorate the graves of the war dead with flowers.

On this Memorial Day, The Bee presents the stories of five veterans of foreign wars who now call the central San Joaquin Valley home:

John Duran, 90, Fowler

John Duran, a Fowler native and lifelong resident, said he joined the Navy in 1944 with hopes of becoming a submariner. Instead, he was assigned to the USS War Hawk, a transport ship that carried Marines, equipment and supplies into battles in the Pacific.

At Saipan, in the Northern Marianas Islands, he piloted a landing craft that ferried Marines from the War Hawk to the beach. Once there, Marines in groups of 21 loaded into amphibious vehicles, and quickly came under enemy fire: "The Japanese had cannons hidden up in the caves in the mountains and they start pinpointing every one of those things. They knocked all of them out. It's the worst thing I ever saw in my life. For two days all we did was pick up tags from the Marines that had gotten killed."

During the Battle of Leyte Gulf in the Philippines, the fighting came to the War Hawk, which was loaded with fresh troops and anchored off the shore of Luzon: "This was about 4 o'clock in the morning. I happened to have been sleeping on the deck on a folding cot on account of it being so warm and hot inside. I heard a thump on the ship and I said, "I wonder what that was?' Then all of a sudden another thump and a big explosion. It was a suicide Japanese boat that ran into us. The boat created a huge hole on the side of the ship and the ship started going down. All the soldiers were running over and jumping over the side into the water."

Duran made his way down a rope and into a landing craft that had been tied along his ship: "I went around picking up soldiers that were in the water. They were all covered with oil."

Later, when the War Hawk was undergoing repairs in dry dock, he took on the dreaded task of going deep in the ship and removing bodies of comrades killed during the suicide attack. Other sailors could not handle the task: "The boys that went down got sick from the smell. I volunteered to go down there and pick up the bodies. The bodies were already becoming decomposed. They took them over to some island and I guess they were buried."

Duran said instincts helped him survive. "You know, it's funny, but I was never afraid when I was in war. I don't know why. I was never afraid of anything. My intuition used to tell me a lot. The Japanese were good. They put one shell here, the next one would be here and the next one was going to be on top of you. For some reason, a shell would hit here and I said, 'OK, the next one is going to be over here,' and I'd pull away. The next one was where I would have been."

-- Nestor Perez

Fatima Hidalgo, 32, Visalia

Fatima Hidalgo, a Visalia native, joined the Navy through a cadet program while she was still at Mt. Whitney High School.

She started duty on Sept. 11, 2002 as a nuclear mechanic aboard the USS Nimitz, an aircraft carrier that saw service during the Iraq War.

Living conditions could be cramped aboard ship, but as one of her commanding officers said: "This isn't a cruise ship, this is a warship. We go to war." Even so, she wouldn't have traded the experiences.

"I've been to Singapore, Malaysia, Australia, Dubai, Bahrain, Guam," Hidalgo recalled. "Some people never leave the Valley. I've been all over the place, lived in the South, lived upstate in New York and had run-ins with all kinds of people. I've worked with all kinds of races, religions, beliefs, and you learn how to deal with people. And that's the coolest part, just having that experience."

As a mechanic, she worked near the engine room and was a long way from the top deck. "The engine room's right at the bottom and we were seven stories down. The first thing you do on the ship is you learn how to go down these tunnels, these tubes. You climb down. It's a ladder that's maybe a foot and a half (wide) at the most, and you're climbing down seven floors. Straight up and down with a clipboard. I was deathly afraid. I would always have a good grip and I made sure I used two hands. At the very bottom -- that's the whole point of going all the way down -- there's this propeller connected to the actual engine. And you have to check on it to make sure everything's fine down there."

She recalled a scary moment during her deployment at sea. "The engine is connected to a pump. All of a sudden we hear a bunch of metal rubbing, and that's bad. They told us that if metal ever rubs, run. So we hid behind a big control board, and we had to stop the engine completely . . . before it flies apart. You're hiding. That's the only time we had a scare down there."

Some of the male sailors were still getting accustomed to having women on board. She recalled one officer in particular: "We get to the ship and he sets me aside and says, 'I've never worked with women. I don't know what to do with you.' I was like, 'This is going to be fun.' Towards the end, nobody cares who you are, as long as you do your job."

-- Sophia Kwiatkowski

Vincent Mendoza, 65, Clovis

Vincent Mendoza says people sometimes ask the wrong questions of veterans, and no question is worse than "How many people did you kill?" Instead, the Vietnam War veteran says the questions to ask are, "What does war do to a human being?" and "How strong do you have to be afterwards, to survive and continue?"

Mendoza, who served in the Marine Corps, had to battle a host of problems when he returned from war: post-traumatic stress, drug and alcohol abuse, low self-esteem, and illnesses related to exposure to the defoliant Agent Orange. He persevered and is now working toward a teaching credential at Fresno State.

Nothing is more terrifying, he believes, than experiencing bombardment. He compared the sounds of incoming fire to that heard when someone rolls down the car windows when a train roars by. "Try to imagine that sound coming over your head and landing right next to you and the explosion of pieces of metal that fly around. It's what cuts your head off, cuts your arms off and just the thought of the power that can do that to your body. You roll up into a little ball. And you cry out, with everything you have, to overcome that fear. But not only that, you had to see your friends get blown to bits, those individuals you were just talking to."

He still has nightmares about one experience in a foxhole: "One morning after staying awake all night, it was my turn to take a little break. So I went to my foxhole, and laid down with my clothes on, my helmet on and made myself a cup of coffee. I felt this big thud on my chest and I thought it was a friend of mine playing a game on me. I looked up and there's this rat the size of a puppy on my chest. And his mouth is right here close to my face. He must have thought I was dead or thought he was gonna take a bite out of me. I just threw that thing off and that thing just galloped away."

Like many Vietnam veterans, Mendoza kept his experiences bottled up for years, but now wants to tell his story. "It does a lot of good for you. It does some healing. To express it, to tell it, to let someone know that you actually saw some things that were terrifying because you chose to go there."

-- Yolanda Herrera

Anna Marie Perez, 30, Madera

Anna Marie Perez was drawn to the military when she was growing up in Madera, waking up at 5 a.m. on Saturdays to play war with her brothers. After 9/11, she followed an older brother into the Marines and was deployed in Iraq from August 2006 until March 2007.

Perez will never forget the weather in Iraq.

"In the heat, you start to get sleepy because you're so hot, and you're sitting in a Humvee that's doing this (the sound of an engine humming) and it's kind of almost soothing. 'I'm gonna go to sleep right now,' but you can't because you have to be vigilant. You're drinking energy drinks and eating muffins the whole time you're on a mission, to try to stay awake. Drinking water, chewing tobacco because you can't smoke in the Humvees. So you're picking up all these bad habits just to try to stay alive and stay awake."

There was no respite, even when the heat broke.

"When it gets cold, you get dust storms. It rains, you get mud everywhere and Marines are so particular for being clean. So you're always cleaning. The dust storms were so bad. The dust, the dirt, sand would just get into everything. If you had a laptop, expect it not to be working by the time you left because you would just get sand and dirt in it."

The horror of war touched Perez and her unit: "Cpl. Seal, he got shot by a sniper. It was bad, it was just really bad, but we didn't let it hurt morale. We tried to just keep our head up, honor him and kept pushing on the mission. The worst part about it was they were telling us the reason that he died was he actually got shot by one of our sniper guns.

"Supposedly a sniper post had been overrun a few months or a few weeks back and the insurgents had picked up that weapon. It hit him right between where his neck guard and his helmet sat. He was a hell of a Marine. He had a son he never got to meet. I think that what really hurt everybody the most is that little boy is never really going to get to meet the hero that his dad was."

The holidays overseas were brightened a bit by packages from home: "My godmother sent me a care package that had hot sauce because you can't get hot sauce in Iraq and it was like gold, and she sent Hot Cheetos, which you couldn't get over there. And my dad, he sent a card and it said on the inside, 'To my hero.' I didn't see it at the time. I didn't think I was. I thought that people like Cpl. Seal, they lost their lives, they're the heroes."

-- Vanessa G. Fierro

Mildred S. Wright-Pearson, 65, Tranquillity

Wright-Pearson, who joined the Army and rose to the rank of major, answers quickly when asked what she liked least about the military: "Getting up early in the morning. I just cannot tolerate getting up early in the morning." But Wright-Pearson, now the 14th District commander of the American Legion, cherishes her Army career for a multitude of memories, world travel, friendships and life-changing experiences.

"You make friendships that last for a lifetime. You know that person's got your back and you got that person's back. You got family, but then you've got your military family. Your military family are the people that you cried and shed blood with, this kind of thing. The military gives you friendships that you may never have been able to have sitting in your neighborhood, renting a house for the rest of your life."

Wright-Pearson recalled the time a humanitarian mission in Ecuador took an unexpected turn: "We were in a barracks. We were told we're not supposed to bring curling irons and all that kind of stuff. But you know how women are -- we brought them anyway. We were getting ready to go out to one of the little towns to provide health care services. We were all using our curling irons and blow dryers and everything and we heard this great big POP! And we looked out the windows and sparks were flying. The transformer that was up on the top of the pole blew out. All the lights went out, and the general was mad because we took out all the electricity in the base."

Wright-Pearson advocates military experience for the young: "It gives them a sense of structure. It changes their outlook on life. It gives them a sense of independence because now they know they are capable of doing something they haven't. It will be an eye-opener and a life changer for them."

-- Nou Lor

About this project

The Central California War Veterans Oral History Project was started in spring 2010 at Fresno State. Since that time, students in the Department of Mass Communication and Journalism and other departments have completed more than 400 oral histories of veterans who have served in conflicts from World War II to Iraq and Afghanistan. The recorded interviews and transcripts are kept in a permanent collection at the Henry Madden Library where they are accessible to the public. The project is directed by journalism professor Gary Rice, and assisting him this spring was history professor Andrea Johnson. Among the 60 oral histories completed this semester were 40 with women veterans who served in conflicts from World War II through Afghanistan.

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