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War & Locale: World War II -- Pacific Theater
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By Cara Henis
Gilbert Sanchez survived the Pacific Typhoon of 1944 that capsized three Navy ships and led to the death of 790 sailors.
As a Navy radioman aboard the USS Macdonough, Sanchez served in nine military offensives across the Pacific front. He witnessed the largest aircraft carrier skirmish recorded during the Battle of the Philippine Sea in June of 1944. He also was aboard ship for the sinking of a Japanese submarine near New Guinea in April of 1944, as well as for the shelling of enemy troops on Parry Island earlier that year in January.
For his service, Sanchez earned nine battle stars. Yet rather than violent war stories, he emphasizes the friendships he cultivated during his time at sea -- bonds created and jokes shared.
Sanchez grew up in Albuquerque, N.M., and entered the service at the age of 17, before completing his senior year at Albuquerque High School. It was the military -- his ship, crewmates and war experiences -- that helped him grow up.
“I did things on my own,” said Sanchez of his years in the Navy. “I didn’t have my parents over me and I learned to be on my own.”
Sanchez grew up in a middle class, bilingual home. His mother, Herlinda Chavez Sanchez, was originally from New Mexico; his father, Pablo Santiago Sanchez, Colorado. Pablo served in the Army in France during World War I. After the conflict, he worked as a printer.
The younger Sanchez followed in his father’s footsteps, volunteering for the military.
“My main objective [in signing up] was not to have a foreign country invade the USA,” wrote Sanchez in a letter after his interview, adding, “Enlisting kept me from being drafted. I know that they don’t draft you into the Navy, so I enlisted.”
Enlisting was also Sanchez’s chance to leave home and experience the world. As he stood on the deck of the USS Macdonough while departing San Francisco Bay en route to the Pacific front in July of 1943, he says he recognized the immense life change he was making. The ship that was to serve as his home for the next several years was a Farragut T-Class destroyer, which provided defense by attacking enemy aircraft and submarines, as well as acting as an escort for larger boats.
“We were going under the Golden Gate Bridge and I just thought, ‘What did I get myself into? Where am I going?’” Sanchez said.
But there was also an underlying excitement: “I’d read and seen pictures of the Golden Gate and here I was under it.”
Though prior to his service Sanchez was unsure of how the war would affect him, he quickly adapted to life aboard a ship. There were frightening moments involving warfare and natural disasters, one of which was the typhoon of 1944. The typhoon’s winds averaged 58 miles per hour to 86 miles per hour with wind gusts up to 138 miles per hour. The USS Monaghan, USS Hull and USS Spence destroyers all capsized. According to the Destroyer Escort Sailors Association, 790 men lost their lives.
“During the typhoon, we lost [three] of our sister ships,” Sanchez said. “We went through it, we survived, but boy, it was scary.”
Sanchez spent his working hours transcribing and deciphering Morse code, as the Navy had sent to the University of Colorado in Boulder for radio-communications training. His code work gave him access to a radio, which he shared with everyone by turning on all of the ship’s speakers and playing Big Band music. One of Sanchez’s close friends, Fred Dimas, worked in the kitchen, where no sound system was present. But by removing a bolt in the ship’s deck, Sanchez lowered a wire into the kitchen, which was under the radio room. He then hooked up a speaker. In return for rigging up a sound system in the kitchen, Dimas brought Sanchez and the other radiomen warm snacks during the midnight-to-4 a.m. shift. This made the night shift extremely popular.
When off the clock, Sanchez enjoyed wandering around the ship, drinking coffee and conversing with the torpedo men and others. Conversely, he also liked spending the day enveloped in a good novel. While some of his reading material comprised of magazines sent by his mother, Sanchez also corresponded with Barbara Padilla, a young woman who lived across the street from his family.
The two faithfully wrote each other during his time away. After the war, they dated, eventually marrying and having four children: Beverly, Barbara, James and Anna Marie.
“Like the old saying goes, I married the girl next door,’’ Sanchez said. “Well, I married the girl across the street.”
Discharged Jan. 29, 1946, at the rank of Radioman Third Class, Sanchez faced a whole new set of responsibilities and opportunities upon re-entering civilian life. Going into the same line of work as his father, he took a job as a printer pressman – first with Valiant Printing Company, then with the University of New Mexico. He later dabbled in politics, running unsuccessfully while in his 50s for county commissioner and clerk in Bernalillo County, N.M.
Yet time away hasn’t dulled Sanchez’s connections to shipmates and military friends. He says he recently hosted a reunion for members of his fleet, a special group that was present for important years of his life.
Mr. Sanchez was interviewed in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on August 2, 2002, by his daughter, Beverly Sanchez-Padilla.