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Memorial Day: Wartime memories in Valley veterans' own words

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

Memorial Day was established 144 years ago, 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 Fresno area home:

John D. Roberts, 90, Fresno

John Roberts was born in Missouri, but his family settled in Southern California. During World War II, Roberts was working at Douglas Aircraft Co. designing tools for the war effort when he was drafted into the Army. He was transferred into the Army Air Corps and became a gunner on a B-17 named the "Homesick Angel."

Roberts remembers flying on a secret mission in the dead of night from Amendola Field in Foggia, Italy.

"No one knew where we were going, except maybe the pilot and navigator, but I knew we were going north because we were following the path of some river. When we landed, we heard Russian voices. It turns out we were in Mirgorod, Ukraine, in early June 1944, just a few days before D-Day."

AUDIO: WWII veteran John Roberts talks about using black and white paint on his B-17 to protect against German trickery as his crew prepared for D-Day at a base in Russia:

It wasn't until later that Roberts learned that the secret mission was leading up to a diversionary tactic that would surprise the Germans on D-Day, June 6, 1944.

His squadron rendezvoused in the air with other groups of planes to attack from the north, while allied invaders were landing on the beaches of Normandy.

"There were all these planes all around us. We had hundreds of planes in the air. It was fantastic. ... All told, we destroyed 143 German aircraft and two submarines that were being readied for duty."

After VE-Day, and with 39 missions under his belt, Roberts was sent back to the United States, where he continued his love for flying, this time in a B-29.

"I was all set to fly one over to the South Pacific and join the war effort, but they sent me home."

-- Sammy LoProto

Ruben Bonilla Gonzales, 63, Hanford

Ruben Gonzales joined the Marines at age 19, believing the Corps' tough training would serve him well if he was ever in combat during the Vietnam War. That's exactly where he found himself in 1970, not long after completing boot camp at Camp Pendleton.

His introduction to Marine drill sergeants was abrupt and life-changing:

"You knew you were in trouble as soon as you got off that bus. The whole world changed right there. We would say, 'Well, what the hell are we doing here?' It was like unbelievable what we had to go through. ... You learn from day one that you know they are the boss."

AUDIO: Vietnam veteran Ruben Gonzales recalls a sobering lesson learned in a village:

Another life-changing experience came two weeks after Gonzales arrived in Vietnam and was embroiled in combat near Danang:

"I was in Hill 37, waiting to be deployed out in the bush. We had incoming (artillery) at the base. It didn't hit us, but it hit the kids out in the rice paddies, and their parents working in the rice paddies. There was a Jeep that went out to go pick up the bodies. It was just a regular small, little Jeep with a little trailer. And they threw the bodies on top of the trailer and they brought them to the base. ... It was sad. That right there -- I mean, it kind of woke me up. Like, wow, what did we get ourselves into?"

Gonzales became a welder after the war. He suffered from the effects of Agent Orange, the chemical spray he gave little thought to at the time.

"We were told they were spraying for mosquitoes and stuff. And for the vegetation to die -- so you could see the enemy better. You never really thought about it. It was a mist that would come down. We would cover up with the ponchos and then life goes on. Then after I got out of Vietnam, that's when all my medical problems started. ... My body felt like it was burning. I had a rash. I had sores from the top of my head, in my nose, in my mouth, all the way to the bottom of my feet."

-- Megan Tweddell

Rodger B. Jensen, 93, Fresno

Rodger Jensen was born in Parlier and graduated from Fresno State in 1941, only a few months before the attack on Pearl Harbor. He enlisted in the Army and was stationed at Fort Meade, Md., before transferring to the Air Corps and becoming a bomber pilot.

In 1945, Jensen and his nine-member crew were assigned to a B-29 named the "Horrible Monster." Jensen and his crew were part of the 315th Bomb Wing stationed in Guam. Their only target was Japan, a 15-hour-flight from the Mariana Islands.

AUDIO: World War II veteran Roger Jensen says taking off with a bomb-laden, underpowered B-29 was a harrowing experience:

"With such a big ocean, our crew had made the decision that if we were hit, we were going to stay with the plane and try to ditch. Admiral Bull Halsey had told us if you can land on water, our ships will be able to pick you up. ... One night we did get hit and we lost an engine, but we were able to maintain flight. We also knew we would not be able to make it back to Guam.

"We were able to get to Iwo Jima that night ... . We made it back to Guam the next day. Thank God we had Iwo Jima to go to."

Nearly a week after Hiroshima and Nagasaki had been devastated by atomic bombs, Japan still had not formally surrendered. The bombing campaigns continued, and Jensen and the 315th were chosen for one of the attacks. Jensen recalled the "last mission," a 17-hour bombing run to Akita, on the north coast of Japan, with the Nippon Oil refinery as the target.

"There were some 144 B-29s warming up on the parallel runways, alternating take-offs every 30 seconds. We had developed engine trouble and were waved off. Our mechanics had the problem fixed quickly, but all the planes had left the island. We were given the choice to scrub the mission, but we voted to catch up with the wing and we took off. When we reached the target, it was a blazing inferno, and the smoke made the drop difficult. ...

"We ended up being the last plane out, on the last mission of World War II. Returning home from the bombing run, the plane was running low on fuel, but high with emotion. We had heard the chatter over the radio. The war was over."

-- Sammy LoProto

Brian Kyle, 45, Kingsburg

Brian Kyle, who played football at McLane High School, came from a family with a military history, but he was the first to join the Marines. Trained as an expert rifleman and a howitzer gunner, his service took him twice around the world and to 19 countries.

Deployed to Saudi Arabia in August 1990 after Saddam Hussein invaded and took over Kuwait, Kyle was one of the first American troops on the ground as part of Desert Shield, which became Desert Storm.

"What they were afraid of was they didn't know if Iraq was going to keep coming straight down into Saudi Arabia. So they took my task force and put us right on the front lines. And then we sat there."

The situation got tenser by the day as more Iraqi troops were deployed across from American lines:

"I remember looking over the berm and you can see them moving more troops closer to us. I think at one time we had 40,000 troops staring at us. There were only 1,500 of us at the time."

While fighting on the ground lasted only 100 hours, Kyle saw some of its heaviest combat and the horrors that go with war.

"We got hit with 200 cannons, 48 hours of constant artillery shells landing on top of us and we're still trying to function. All I'm saying is, 'Thank God today that they were inaccurate.'

"We also had the ones that wanted to fight ... One day I look up, I was digging a fighting hole and my corpsman all of a sudden dropped on top of me. I looked up, because I fell on my back; he fell on top of me. I could see this red streak go right across my hole. It was an RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) fired at me. I'm looking at the streak and where it hit. It would have hit me about right here in the chest. ... Well, I named my oldest son after him. Michael Ricks was his name and now my son is Michael Eric Kyle."

-- Alejandro Vidal

James Robison, 91, Selma

James Robison, born in Los Angeles, joined the Navy after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941. A gunner's mate on an anti-aircraft gun, Robison spent 22 months overseas. He split his service between the tiny island of Banika in the Solomons and the USS Wright, a submarine tender. He was recalled to duty during the Korean War before returning to civilian life and 42 years in the banking business.

Robison recalled that during his time on Banika, there were tense situations when Japanese intent on retaking Guadalcanal occasionally attacked the airfield where he was stationed:

"You'd be sleeping, you'd hear the siren going off and that meant the Japanese were coming. So you'd run out, real late at night you'd jump in your foxhole. If it was early in the evening you'd go for your guns. ... Well, between the Marine Corps and my gun we got one (enemy plane), but the question was, who got it? Did the Marines get it or did the Navy get it? That was never resolved."

Robison has funny memories as well. He and another sailor ran a laundry, operating washing machines for grateful comrades who tipped them for scrubbing their duds.

"The Marines on the other end of the island heard the Navy's got washing machines. They are scrubbing out of a bucket. Well now, there's no restriction on what we can charge the Marines! They're not part of our outfit. So in the end, we started doing some of the Marines' laundry, too. This one time, we did the Marines' laundry, put it in the washing machine, washed it, pulled it out -- all the underwear was pink. Somebody had put a red baseball cap in with all the whites.

"And we thought, 'Oh, they're going to kill us.' ... They came back to get their stuff. They were happy. When you're on an island long enough, it doesn't take much to entertain you. So we had all the Marines coming over wanting to know if we could dye their stuff pink, too."

Based on his military experience in wartime, Robison has some advice for political leaders.

"I think they should consider very, very strongly before they commit the young men to war. Tongue in cheek, I've always said, 'If we sent politicians to war, we wouldn't have wars.' "

-- Jenna Mersereau

About the Central California War Veterans Oral History Project

The project was begun in spring 2010. Since then, students in Fresno State's Department of Mass Communication and Journalism and other departments have completed more than 320 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 Gary Rice and assistant director Lauren Albertson.

Memorial Day observances

A list of observances in the Valley on Memorial Day:

  • Sunrise service: 5:30 a.m., Woodward Park, Vietnam Memorial Monument at Lakeview Shelter, Fresno, (559) 435-2464.
  • Service: 9 a.m., Washington Colony Cemetery, 7318 S. Elm Ave., Fresno, (559) 264-7577.
  • Service: 9 a.m., Roeding Park, Nisei War Memorial, 890 W. Belmont Ave., Fresno, (559) 275-6318.
  • Ceremony: 10 a.m., Liberty Cemetery, 1831 W. Belmont Ave., Fresno, (559) 977-4442.
  • Service: 10 a.m., Armenian Martyrs Memorial, near the Yazijian Memorial Building Administration office, Ararat Armenian Cemetery, 1925 W. Belmont Ave., Fresno, (559) 292-2415.
  • Ceremony: 10 a.m., Clovis Cemetery, 305 N. Villa Ave., Clovis, (559) 299-0471.
  • Service: 10:30 a.m., Soghomon Tehlirian Monument, Masis Ararat Armenian Cemetery, 250 N. Hughes Ave., Fresno, (559) 292-2415.
  • 116th annual First Armenian Presbyterian Church picnic: 11 a.m., Central High School East Campus, in the Central Unified Aquatics Complex, 3535 N. Cornelia Ave., Fresno, (559) 237-6638, $5.
  • Program: 11 a.m., Avenue of Flags, Courthouse Park, Gateway Drive and Yosemite Avenue, downtown Madera, (559) 673-7520.
  • 50th annual Service: 11 a.m., Fresno Memorial Gardens, 175 S. Cornelia Ave., Fresno, (559) 824-2008.
  • Concert: 11:30 a.m., Clovis Community Band, Clovis Veterans Memorial District, 808 Fourth St., Clovis, (559) 299-0471.