By Leigh Cole
Manuel Najera certainly made his presence known in the service during World War II, flying 35 missions in Europe before coming home.
"If I would have died, it would have ended my family," Najera said.
But he took that risk and became an aerial machine gunner in the Army Air Forces in 1943.
Najera had a choice about fighting in the war because Title 50 of the United States Code, Appendix 456, offered it to him as the sole surviving son of his family. Growing up in Saginaw, Mich., with only his mother, he dropped out of school at age 16 to help out financially. When he turned 18 in 1943, he was drafted.
Even though he had a choice, he went to Detroit to sign his papers. From there, he went to Fort Custer, near Battle Creek, Mich., for his assignment.
"I told them I didn't care what I did," Najera said, "and they said, 'We are going to make a flyer out of you.'"
After basic training at Jefferson Barracks, near St. Louis, Mo., Najera was transferred to Las Vegas, Nev., for gunnery training, where he learned the basics of flying and shooting.
After gunnery training, he went to Salt Lake City, where he was taken, with hundreds of other new trainees, into a big auditorium.
"They pointed me into a corner with nine others, and that was our crew," he said. "From then on we were going to sleep together, eat together, everything together."
This togetherness began immediately when Najera, who was a B-17 Gunner in the 487th Bombardment Group, and his crew were flown to Nebraska to pick up the planes they flew to Ireland. They arrived there July 4, 1944.
The planes were left in Ireland, to be prepared for combat, while the crew was sent to Salisbury, England, where they were based throughout their tour of duty.
"I didn't care too much for it [England] because there wasn't much to do," he said.
Najera then went on his first mission, at just 19 years of age. He and his crew were the backup for that first mission and didn’t have to go in and fight, but he fought in almost every mission after that.
"We had Germans come up after us, and our planes were fighting and shooting each other," he said. "And I just kept looking and thought, 'Hey, this is a lot of fun, you know,' but after that I found out that they were shooting at us too!"
At this point, Najera starts recalling more about his 35 combat missions throughout Europe, remembering specifics as if they happened yesterday but blending all of the experiences into one long thought.
The day for each mission started with a breakfast of fresh eggs at 4 a.m., he says, followed by a job-specific meeting where the captains would reveal where the crew was going, what route they were going to take and where and how they should expect their enemies to attack.
Among his 35 missions, Najera says, he had a few close calls. The closest was when a radio operator was hit right in front of him.
"The plane went up, and then it went down, and then there was a big puff of smoke right in front of me," he said. "I said, 'Oh God, we're hit.' That's the closest we came to getting shot down."
On another mission, Najera and his crew were forced to throw everything overboard to keep the plane, riddled with bullet holes, in the air.
During their missions, Najera and his crew were escorted by other fighter planes for extra protection. The fighter planes could only escort them up to a certain point because of fuel limitations, leaving them exposed to the German fighter planes without any defense.
During the war, improvements in fuel capacity on the fighter planes allowed them to escort during the entire mission. Thus, the number of required missions was increased from 25 to 35 during Najera's tour of duty.
He recalled that as his count approached 25 missions, "I thought, 'Oh my God, I only had seven more to go and now I have 17 to go.’”
Najera says circumstances were never the same after each mission.
"Tonight you go to sleep and you say goodnight to your friend over there, and the next night there's an empty bed over there because he didn't make it back," he said.
Despite his hard times in the war, Najera says others had it even rougher.
"I thought I had it better than fellows on the ground," he said. "I had a clean bed that I slept on every night, I had a good hot meal and showers and stuff like that. People that did have it bad, I really felt sorry for."
After completing his 35 missions, Najera turned down an offer to stay overseas and train gunners in favor of coming home. But he was still a target.
"We were in a boat for seven days at port in England, and then seven days crossing," he said. "It took us so long because we had to zig and zag because the war was still going on, and we didn't want to get hit."
After spending a month's leave in Santa Ana, Calif., Najera was transferred to Lubbock, Texas, where he remained until the end of the war as a master sergeant, later getting promoted to Crew Chief.
"I got there late at night, so they told me to sleep upstairs in an empty bunk," Najera said. "When I woke up, there was a circle of guys around my bed looking down at me, and I said, 'What did I do?' They were just curious, wanted to know about the war and my experience, did I shoot any planes down and stuff like that."
When the war ended, Najera missed out on much of the celebration because he had to help control the revelry. He was in charge of alcohol supervision around town and in restaurants in the dry county where Lubbock is located.
"I was supposed to take it away, but I would just tell them to hide it under the table or something," he said. "I made a lousy MP."
Najera earned the Air Medal with four Oak Leaf clusters, as well as the European Theatre Ribbons with at least three battle stars.
After being discharged, he moved back to Saginaw, where he soon met the girl who’d be his wife, Consuelo Guerra, at a friend of a friend's baptism.
"You might have heard this before, but I looked at her and said, 'I'm going to marry that girl.'"
A year after their first meeting, they met again when a friend asked Najera if he’d take his girlfriend's cousin to a dance. That cousin turned out to be the same girl from the baptism. They were married June 23, 1951, at St. Joseph's Church.
Najera remained in Saginaw with Consuelo and their five children -- Gabriel, Nancy, Patricia, Lawrence and Daniel -- and worked at a Chevrolet parts plant for 40 years until he retired.
Mr. Najera was interviewed in Saginaw, Michigan, on October 12, 2002, by Juan Marinez.
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U.S. Latino and Latina World War II Oral History Project