You may find Joe Lopez walking the streets in the Forbes area of San Rafael any sunny day of week. At the age of 94, he is in fantastic shape. He talks to the neighbors and offers his many stories of the times he has lived through including the years he served his country. Here is Joe’s story:
Joseph Lopez was born on March 22nd, 1917 in Vacaville, California on a ranch. His sister came with his family from Southern Spain, from what Joe calls the ”provincia de Andalucia.” His father was a foreman on the ranch, who came from Spain with that skill.
A very sad story happened to Joe’s family, before he was even born. At mealtimes, Joe’s family would sit around the table like in the old country. Everyone shared and ate out of one pot, placed in the center of the table. This led to a very serious problem. He had two brothers and two sisters. The children would go to school in the daytime and then the bus would bring them by the highway and they would walk to the ranch after school. “When they got dropped off, the kids were walking back through the orchard. Coming back they started picking up toadstools. They picked them up and brought them home. My mother doesn’t know anything about that, so everything goes in the pot. It is cooked and the family ate it.” In the meantime, Joe’s mother was pregnant with Joe. After dinner one evening, the children did not feel well, so she gave them castor oil. As the night went on, the kids became sicker and sicker. My mother told my father to go downtown and get the doctor. In those days you had to go get him. So the doctor comes back and looks at the kids and says, ‘What have they been eating?’ Mother says, ‘Well you know, it’s whatever. You can look at what is still in the pot.’ The doctor takes one look and says, ‘Oh Boy!’ Today you can take care of it. But we didn’t have that medical background in those days. So, they died one, two, and three. What still surprises me is that father, mother and my older sister survived; it didn’t bother them. “
After that, Joe’s mother lost her zest for life living in Vacaville. She couldn’t remain in the same house anymore. That is why the family moved to San Francisco, this was ten years after the 1906 earthquake. Unfortunately, they arrived in San Francisco during one of the most devastating times in American history. It was the time of the Pandemic of 1918, in which the Spanish Influenza ravaged the world. More people died from this sickness than in WWI. One of the strange aspects of this epidemic was that the most susceptible were 20 – 40 year olds, verses the very young and the old who were victims of most suffering from influenza. Unfortunately, Joe’s mother was right in that range, she became sick quickly, and knew she was dying. Joe’s sister was only twelve years old, and he was just one at the time. After, Joe’s mother passed away, it was Josephine, his oldest sister, who raised him.
When Joseph was seventeen, he lied about his age in order to enlist in the army, which led to his three-year service with the Army. Joe recalls, “I was seventeen, and I told them I was 18. My sister was my guardian, and she wouldn’t sign the papers when I wanted to go into the service. She said all those guys were just getting drunk and all that. You are not getting my brother into the service. So, as I was walking down Mission Street in San Francisco, there was an enlistment station. I went in there and we had a long conversation. Me, I wanted to travel, I wanted to do something. I asked him where I can go; I wanted to go to Panama. I could speak the language better. But he told me I couldn’t go there because it was a second tour job. But he told me he could send me to Hawaii. That sounded pretty good to me!”
When he first enlisted in the Army, Joe spent time in the bay, on Angel Island. “They used to ship people in here; they would bring people from different places. And when they had enough, and they had their shots, they would ship them out. I went to Hawaii with the 11th field artillery. This was a long time ago, I was just a kid. I even ended up with a girlfriend. It was 1934, when I went there it was like a vacation. When I was there the girls would wear hula skirts.”
Joe Lopez was stationed at Schofield Barracks on Oahu for 2 ½ years with the Army. While there, he had many jobs, including driving the base commander around. “I even drove the old man around with his family. I also drove a tractor on Kolekole pass cutting a road over the mountain, a pass that is still used today. I got back from the army a long time ago; when they were building the bay bridge (1936). “
When Joe got out of the army, he started working on waterfront in San Francisco. By the time WWII came around, he was married and had one son named Michael. “I had an exemption, you know, but all these guys are coming back from Europe. When the war in Europe was getting ready to stop, you are not going to send those guys back out to the Pacific. They needed some help in the Pacific; so someone else would have to go,” comments Joe.
Joe had the foresight to see what was going to happen. But, he didn’t want to be stuck on some island with the army, so he went down and spoke to the man at the enlistment station. “I am going to have to go in the draft, so I might as well go in the service and enlist and get a better deal. When I was there he asked, ‘What can you do?’ ‘Well,’ I said, ‘I have been working on the waterfront, I can run winches; I can instruct people how to do it.’” So, he then asked Joe what to do to rig a Frisco Gear. “Well,” Joe said, “you take two hatches; you take one from there and one from there to get double strength.” The recruiter commented, “I didn’t know that. You know enough and we need guys like you.”
Joe was assigned to the Seabees. “We were there with rifles and guns and the whole bit, while in the meantime, you are doing your job. I got three stripes right there. “
Each outfit readies the men they had together and sends them all over the world. Joe was there with a group of people from all around San Francisco. He boarded a train to Camp Endicott, Rhode Island. All the way to Rhode Island, the train was stopping and loading more enlisted men. Overnight, the train stopped at the USO in New York City. The men were told to disembark. The conductor said, “This is as far as we got tonight, and we are going to leave in the morning.” Joe and his buddies were all in civilian clothes, “We didn’t have our uniforms just yet. I talked about Italian Food out there. So we got a hold of a cab driver, this guys as says yeah I’ll take you. Then we are going 50 miles an hour down the streets in the city. We said ‘Hey, crimeny sakes ,’ He said, ‘Don’t worry that is the way we drive here.’”
“I don’t have the whole crew with me; I just had this one compartment of guys from the train. We spent the evening. Food and drinks you see. We had a good time. By the time we got back it was late. There was only a few of us that went down to the Italian place. When we got back, I asked what time we were leaving. ‘What do you mean what time you leaving, they are long gone.’” Joe was not sure what to do next, but were advised to catch the next train. He and his crew waited all night and got the next train in the morning.
Joe proceeds with the story: “When we get into Camp Endicott the guys asked us where we had been. They thought something happened to us and told me we weren’t supposed to do that. I was stumbling for words and he said, ‘Don’t talk about it, just get on there.’ With war conditions the way they were, there must have been a lot of these guys that jumped ship.”
“They had us in Camp Endicott for boot camp. You wore fatigues, you learned about the military. All day you were getting instructions. I had done it in Hawaii, but they did it to me again!”
Since Joe has some experience, they took his group to teach them how to rig. When they were finished with boot camp, they went right back. They actually ended up in Los Angeles, loading ships with merchandise. “We had graduated from boot camp, so they put your stripes on. I was a third class already. They had guys from all over: truck drivers, riggers and more,” remembers Joe. “We worked there. They kept us there for at least a month.”
Then, Joe got his orders again. This time, they were being sent to Treasure Island. “I was a leading chief. I made Chief Boatswains Mate. I ran into a guy that I used to work with on the waterfront that was a commander. At that point no one got any liberty. But I lived in San Francisco; my family was right over there. So I got a hold of the Chaplin, and he talked to the leading chief. He gave me a pass and said you need to be back when liberty expired in the morning.”
Joe had his crew working in San Francisco; right alongside the pier they had a ship. “All the food and stuff, my crew had to load it right on. When we got ready to go, I had my oldest son, Michael, came to see me on the ship. My brother-in-law brought him to see the ship, so I took him right onto the deck to come meet the Captain. Michael still remembers it to this day.”
“Then we got ready to get shipped out. But before we go, they start giving us all a lot of gear. And they start giving us all of this heavy gear. I said, ‘What is all this stuff?’ It looked like we were going someplace cold. And then they said the orders have been changed. We were not going to Alaska, they changed everything around, and they gave us light gear. They told us we were headed to the Pacific. And I know when you are going out there; you don’t stand on deck like you do when you are going on vacation. Everything is dark and we were standing watches around the clock. I ended up being in charge of all the sweepers onboard. We ate first and then had to clean up the ship while everyone else ate.”
Joe Lopez was on a liberty ship. There were marines on board. They were all carrying rifles. There was nothing for the Marines to do until they landed. “They just lay all around, all over the place,” Joe remembers. “I was in the Pacific at the end of the war and when the war was over. We had no docks or anything. We were still loading cargo and dropping it off where these guys were. When I got on Guam, they were still shooting. Half the island was secured; the other half was in the hands of the Japanese. They would come down at night to try and steal food. While I was there, I ran into a friend from home. He said, ‘Joe, what the heck of you doing here? Have you been assigned? No? Then you work with me.’ So that’s it. We started splitting the work. When he was off, me and my crew would work.”
Joe’s duties included loading up a ship and then dropping the supplies off at the islands. He doesn’t think anyone took a shot over them, but admits to seeing a lot of action. They were living in caves. At the islands there was nothing there. No docks. So Joe remembers the bunch of guys from New York who worked with him. They would always steal whatever they could. They would sometimes get beer and even liquor passed the guards. They were a wild bunch, he recalls.
Joe’s memories are vivid. “You saw that movie? The one I mean with John Wayne, The Fighting Seabees. That is pretty much what we did. We did whatever they told us to do and we never knew what it was going to be. It changed all the time. But if they told us to go do it, then you had to go do it. It was the war.”
“I never killed anyone; at least I don’t think so. So, we always had those small rifles with us; those M-1’s. When you first get over there you don’t know what is going on. You could hear that shooting all over the joint. I used to see them now and then. The marines used to see them; they used to shoot them. If you could see the guys, then you were shooting at them. You try not to expose yourself. If you are doing your job, you are trying to protect the fellas that are out there.”
In the meantime, Joe’s ship was floating around. One time, he recalls he was close enough on board ship told see the peak in Iwo Jima. Joe could even see where they were putting the flag up. “But we usually came in at night. We are dropping off stuff and the marines are still fighting. “
Joe’s nephew was on Saipan. He was with the flight engineers with the navy. He would have been left there if he hadn’t swapped a flight with another guy. He was with a unit that would fly over the American troops and drop cargo out. Then men would sneak out and grab it at night. According to Joe, it was just like the movies. “So he was getting ready to go when his buddy says, ‘you’ve’ been going out every day, I’ll take your shift this time. Maybe you can take one of mine in the future.’ It was a good thing he didn’t go. The other guy, his buddy, got shot down.
Joe remembers returning to the San Francisco Bay. “When I came back we got in we got on land and they let us take a shower. Then they got us all together at Coit Tower in San Francisco and that is where they gave us our discharge papers. I am one of the lucky ones. A lot of my friends never made it. I had a lot more friends when we got called in the draft. I don’t know if any of them are even alive today.”
Joe bought a home in San Francisco. In those days, you could buy a home for $12,000. He lived and worked in the city for many years. After his wife passed away, Joe’s son Michael offered to have Joe live with his family. Joe’s daughter-in-law is a nurse with Kaiser, which is an added benefit.
Joe Lopez was a Commander in the VFW. “I am a lifetime member; I get a write-up once a month. I helped organize a lot of what we have today. There was this fella, who started collecting all the money for all the services. I gave him a couple of bucks. We needed to help out those guys. Some guys have it tough; others have it not so tough. I wear my VFW ball cap, not to advertise, but because I run into all sorts of people. Like there was this lady in this store who sees this hat and asks, ‘Were you in the service?’ And that gets us to talking, and it is good”. For all the Joe has done for his country, he still remains a very humble man.
Interviewed by Victoria and Frank Pereira on July 10, 2011.