Arizona's Hispanic 'flyboys' in WWII
The Arizona Republic
May 24, 2003
By Angela Cara Pancrazio
Angela Cara Pancrazio/The Arizona Republic
Author Rudolph Villarreal, displaying Jose Ortega
As Rudolph C. Villarreal flipped through pages of old newspapers dating back
to the 1940s, one Hispanic name after another struck the Tempe man's
Avila, Barraza, Campos, Carrillo, Gallegos, Larini, Mabante and Orrantia.
Hundreds of young men, contemporaries of Villarreal's father, served as
pilots, bombardiers, navigators, gunners, flight engineers and radio
operators with the Army Air Corps during World War II.
Many were the American-born sons of Mexican immigrant farm workers and
miners from small-town Arizona. Many lost their lives in their country's
And, if, Villarreal hadn't taken his discovery in the library that day 15
years ago with a sense of purpose, the sacrifice of Arizona's Hispanic
'flyboys' might have been overlooked.
Instead, he has written a self-published book: Arizona's Hispanic Flyboys,
"World War II remains one of the most significant historical events of the
20th century," said Villarreal. "Not much, however, has been written about
Hispanics who served in uniform from 1941 through 1945. This is especially
true of those who served in the so-called 'glamorous' air corps of the U.S.
Army and Navy."
Villarreal for years tracked down these men and their families, sending out
questionnaires, copying photographs, and studying World War II, driven by
his childhood memories of San Diego during World War II.
"I can recall the camouflaged exterior walls at the Consolidated Aircraft
factory where warplanes were being built, tokens and stamps used to purchase
rationed food items and gasoline, . . . and swarms of men and women
everywhere in uniform," he writes in his book. "Perhaps it was all the
activity witnessed on the home front of this busy port city that sparked my
lifelong interest in learning what happened overseas."
Villarreal said he faced a daunting task as he gathered war records,
photographs, letters and telegrams from veterans and their families. He
filled scrapbooks with this raw material, nuggets that honor the memory of
young Hispanic men from Arizona who fought in the war.
Twenty-one-year-old Sgt. Manuel H. Larini penned this letter to his mother,
Lupe, dated June 4, 1944:
"Querida Madrecita ( My dear mother), "Estas cuantas lineas para saludarle
regandole a Dios que ustedes se encuentren bien. (Just a quick note to say
hello and pray to God that you are fine.)
"Yo estoy bien gracias a Dios. (I
am fine, thank God.) "Este es su hijo que nunca los olivida.
(This is your
son who will never forget you.)"
Two days after he wrote this letter, on D-Day, June 6, 1944, the flight
engineer/gunner was killed when his B-26 was hit by enemy anti-aircraft fire
as it approached Utah Beach, minutes before U.S. troops stormed ashore.
Other Hispanic "flyboys" were luckier, and returned home.
Servando Carrillo, 81, grew up in the mining town of Superior, where planes
soared above the big mountain named Apache Leap. The day he graduated from
Superior High School, he enlisted.
"By 1942, if you were 18 years old, you knew you were going in the service,"
Carrillo says. "It was just a matter of time."
When Villarreal contacted him, Carrillo hesitated because he did not want to
be singled out, without his crew.
On a recent afternoon in his Tempe living room, he surrendered his war
experience, slowly, not dependent on recollections more than a half-century
old but from a recent nightmare. "You relive it all the time," Carrillo
says, "you wake up in a cold sweat sometimes.
"You aren't thinking about it, there it is," he said. "You don't know what
Only Carrillo and one other crew member remains.
"Eight of us have died since then. We started out together, we ended up
together, we were always as one," said Carrillo, a radio operator/gunner
who, with his crew, survived D-Day. "You're always afraid. The thing you are
afraid of is letting your crew down.
"Nothing was ever demonstrative, you knew it was within each person in the
crew," Carrillo says. "It's just like you love someone - like your mother -
you know you do, come hell or high water you know you do - it's the same way
you feel about your crew members."
Nearly 500,000 Hispanics fought in World War II. In 1941, Gilbert Duran
Orrantia, son of a smelter worker in Clarkdale, knew he was close to being
called up. So Orrantia enlisted in the Army Air Corps.
"Mom was devastated," Orrantia said.
Epigmenia Orrantia had already lost two sons: one died at age 5; another was
crushed to death in a smelter. "She was constantly praying."
She had every reason to: Her son was caught between cultures.
In training, he eyed the pilot's seat, but recalled how his instructor had
cast doubts by asking Orrantia if he was Mexican and warning he wasn't
intelligent enough. Orrantia remembers how he told the instructor he was
American-born and he would take the chances with the best of them.
"Mexican-Americans weren't looked at as a very smart people," he said. "They
thought we were a bunch of dummies."
But there's a leather briefcase he has kept. He clutches his pilot's
briefcase, cracked and worn by 50 combat missions, as if it were some sort
of shield, his proof, that, along with his mother's blessings, it kept him
alive as he flew with the best of them.
Reach the reporter at