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War & Locale: World War II -- Pacific Theater
Date of Birth:
By Corina Kellam
Before the births of his son and three daughters, before trying his hand at professional golf training and real estate, Ernie Gonzalez was a naval engineer.
Gonzalez attended Oatman Grammar School in Arizona first through third grade, before moving to San Jacinto, California in 1931 after the death of his father, to continue his school years.
"Oatman is sort of a deserted town now. There is some action with donkeys walking up and down the street, though," he said.
Gonzalez played baseball in Hawaii in the summers and was the team captain. But his life changed the day Pearl Harbor was bombed. On Dec 7, 1941, Gonzalez left his home of San Diego to go hunting near the Rodriguez Dam in Tijuana with a friend, Billy Denton. They got home at 10 a.m. and the radios were announcing the news.
"Billy said, 'What you gonna do?' and I said, 'I'm gonna join the Navy as soon as I can,'" Gonzalez recalled.
His mother, Ernestina - who met her husband, Francisco, in Rae, Arizona when it was still a territory - did not want any of her three sons to go to war. But all three brothers went anyway. Gonzalez being the youngest enlisted in the Navy, while his older brothers were drafted.
After enlisting, though, Gonzalez waited for three months before going to training. His departure was delayed because of lack of living quarters.
"It was so backed up that they said, 'We're gonna swear you in and we're gonna pay you, but we're not gonna call you in for three months,'" he said.
Gonzalez started training in June, studying engineering.
"Nobody knew what a computer was back then," he said.
He found himself surrounded by Southerners. There was only one other Californian; everyone else was from Texas and Oklahoma.
"I had six fights in two weeks and I won them all," Gonzalez recollected. "These guys, Mexicans from Texas, were used to getting pushed around, and I wasn't. They'd push and trip me, and I'd clock 'em."
After two weeks of constant fighting, Gonzalez' commander called him in. Gonzalez thought he was going to get kicked out of the Navy. Instead, he was promoted to Master at Arms.
He gave the men their details every morning and "there weren't many complaints."
But after a mere 60 days, training came to an abrupt end.
"There was an emergency and training was over. Our company was sent to Vallejo, California. We were assigned to various destroyers, I was assigned to the U.S.S. La Vallete," Gonzalez said.
They went to Samoa, New Caledonia, New Guinea, New Zealand and other islands in the Pacific.
"Anything north of the equator was Japanese. South of the equator, we could get around them," he said.
He said his first weeks at sea were "smooth sailing" but that soon would come to an end. On Oct. 26, 1942, he was confronted with the brutal realities of war.
The USS La Vallette, one of the destroyers sent to war area to the pacific, was one of the victims in the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands. Five American cruisers were torpedoed, including his own.
"The torpedo jumped right through the shaft. There was only one propeller and two boilers were out," he said.
The battle took the lives of fourteen of his friends.
"You get to know a person and you like them and it's hard to give them up. You don't know whether to go hooray for me or cry for you because it could have been me just as easily as anyone else," he said.
The hardest part for Gonzalez was the makeshift burial.
"The saddest thing about it is you have to get rid of the bodies. You have to put them in bags and throw them overboard," he said. "Sometimes if they're not blown up too badly they can be kept in the icebox. But when someone's torpedoed, they're not in good shape."
Over Christmas, an executive officer contacted Gonzalez offering him a position as a fighter pilot.
"I said I didn't want to, I wanted to go back with the ship," he said.
Gonzalez went on work as an engineer on the USS Amycus-ARL-2 ship, who as a repair officer, helped put it together.
"A lot of pieces have to go in the right place to make a ship," he said.
When Gonzalez enlisted, he had different reasons from most other sailors.
"I told everyone, 'I'm not doing it for nothing heroic. I just want to have a hell of a lot of fun and be with guys my age,'" he said.
His priorities had not changed in 1946. He found himself in Veterans of Foreign War (VFW) meetings surrounded by men decades older than himself.
"We wanted to get away from the older guys. Every time we'd suggest something they'd turn us down and we were like, we wanna have some fun, too," he said. "We wanted a plaque to respect fallen friends. They said no. So I got out."
Gonzalez and many of the younger members of the VFW formed the Brother Rats club.
"I became el presidente," Gonzalez said.
They threw parties and made money from craps tables and selling drinks with their liquor license.
"On Mother's Day we made all sorts of money. We bought the goddamned plaque, and we put it up," Gonzalez said.
But the party did not last forever. At the group's inception, only one member, Ernest's brother Chris, was married. But that would slowly begin to change.
"We started losing them, one at a time as they married. Oh, so-and-so's gonna get married. Count him out," Gonzalez remembered.
Not too long after, though, Gonzalez married as well. On Christmas Eve 1950, he and Maddy Maria Perez were married in Yuma, Arizona. Over the next two decades, Gonzalez continued his work with the United States Navy and began to start a new family. Their first child Linda was born in October 1951. Susan, Ernest and Rachel rounded out the family over the next 12 years.
Gonzalez received 15 promotions spanning from enlistment in 1942 to retirement in 1972 with the ranking of lieutenant commander.
"I don't feel I should be praised. What I've got now, I've earned, and I'm proud of it," he said.
Reflecting on his life, Gonzalez happily recognizes a common theme.
"I worked hard, I played hard, and I enjoyed it."