Robert Gonzalez

Gonzalez photo

Robert E. Gonzalez
U.S. Airforce, Captain, Accounting & Finance Officer (AFO)
Vietnam War (1964 – 1970)

The Cold War was the continuing state from roughly 1946 to 1991 of political conflict, military tension and economic competition between the Soviet Union and the United States.  Although the military forces never engaged in any major battle with each other, they did engage in all manner of political military conflict, including “Proxy Wars” such as the Vietnam War.  This is the story of Robert Gonzalez, a Vietnam veteran who served during this critical time period in American history.

Robert Gonzalez was born in November 1940 in New York City.   His parents were both New Yorkers.   His father was born in 1907 and emigrated from Spain when he was just an infant.   Gonzalez’ mother was born in the United States from pure Italian parents, so Robert Gonzales is actually 50% Spanish and 50% Italian.   He lived in various areas of New York City until he was 10 years old:  “In 1950, my father decided to move the family to Tucson, Arizona.  This was a big change for us, New Yorkers.  But, my father was a building contractor; a rather good carpenter that liked to build houses on his own.  He had heard from friends that there was going to be a lot of building in Tucson and he was right! So he went out to look and decided this is what he needed to do.  So, my dad went back to New York, sold everything, and brought our whole family to Arizona.”

Gonzalez’ father had a second motive to move his kids out of New York. He didn’t think it was a great environment to raise a family. He thought it would be better for his kids to grow up in an area of different values other than those in prevalent in the city at the time.  So, the family left the Harlem area to move to Arizona. 

“My father’s family was from Andalucía, he was born in La Linea.   When we got to Tucson in 1950, the town only had about 30,000 people; just a handful of traffic lights. Most of the roads out by us were dirt. The street of houses that he built didn’t exist.  The county said it would take a grader and that he would have to lay out the roads according to the plan.  It was on this new road that he bought a bunch of plots to build houses. So when they finished with the road, they said, ‘What do you want to name it?’ He first started with my name, Robert, but there was already a Robert Street in Tucson.  So then he picked his own name, Ellis. He built all the houses on the north side of Ellis Street.  What he should have done is gone big.  He had friends and bankers who wanted him to keep building.  They preferred that he supervise, not swing a hammer. But my dad said he want to build the houses himself. It was a mistake, he could have been rich. “

The Gonzales family lived on the north side of town.  Robert lived in one of the houses, 917 Ellis Street.  He moved there in the 6th grade.  When he graduated from high school in Tucson in 1959, he was accepted to the University of Arizona.  At the time, there were many California transfers and it was a very social school.  The tuition was only $125 per semester!  Robert Gonzales graduated with a degree in business administration in February of 1964.

Remember back to his college days, Robert Gonzales recall that the draft was in full swing.  “People were getting drafted left and right,” Robert remembers.  University of Arizona was a land grant college that offered ROTC.  The men needed to commit for two years.  There was a detachment run by LCDR Jimmy Wilkinson. Gonzales worked all through college with very little free time.  LCDR Wilkinson advised Gonazles to stay in and complete the advanced ROTC for a commission in the Air Force.  “This war could still be going on and you could be an infantry soldier on the front lines if you are drafted.” Wilkinson advised.   But to Robert, two years seemed like a long time, so he decided against that plan, figuring that there would be no way the war could still be going on after graduation. 

“So as we are getting closer to graduation it starts to get a little tense,’ Gonzales recalls.  “The war is hot and heavy, the draft is worse than ever, and my 2S exemption from the draft for going to school is going to end.  By now, it is common knowledge that all the opportunities to enlist in an officer training program were already taken; I mean everybody with a degree wanted to be an officer to avoid being part of the enlisted infantry in the army!   So it was hard, there were no spots.”

 Upon graduation, Robert Gonzales was unsure of his future plans.   “I didn’t know what to do; and I am working.  A week or two passes and then a letter came. I could see the return address on it and panicked.  I jumped in my little sports car and immediately drove to see LCDR Jimmy Wilkinson.  I said, ‘You were right, look at the letter.’  And then I proceeded to take the tongue-lashing.   And he was right; of course I should have listened.  So, I let him vent, and he ran on until he ran out of steam.  Then we got down to business. What were we going to do?”  LCDR confirmed that all of the Officer Training Schools (OTS) spots were filled.   It was considered the 90-day wonder training program.  The enlisted men only had eight weeks.  But it was difficult to get an officer position since all the slots were taken.  Gonzales was at a loss as to what to do?

The two put their head together and remembered a contact, Major Cliff Buche, from a few years back. They were able to locate him at the Air Force Personnel Center at Randolph Air Force base in Texas.  Wondering if he was working late that night, they placed a call. “So Jimmy calls him up, and gets a hold of Major Buche right away. I t starts with, ‘Hey you remember Gonzalez?’  They chatted for a while.  Jimmy mentioned he needed a slot for me.  So Wilkinson gave him that long pregnant pause and then said, ‘Yeah, I know it is tough Cliff, but what you are going to do?’  So Cliff asks, ‘Is he willing to be an Accounting and Finance Officer?’  Since I had my business degree, I had taken accounting classes in finance.  “Yes I’ll do it. I’ll sweep floors, too if I have to,’ I say.  Cliff told me the spot would open that coming May.  I said I would take it and he put me in that slot.”  The next issue Gonzales faced was what to do until May.   He knew he had to enlist. Luckily, Wilkinson was in touch with Sergeant Sparks, who was able to take Gonzales to register for the draft instantly.  The sergeant had a girlfriend on the draft board that moved Gonzales’ application down to the bottom of the stack. 

Eventually the May date came and Robert Gonzalez was assigned to Officer Training School.  At the time, Gonzales had a girlfriend, Bonnie, now his wife.  Finally, as it was getting close for him to leave, he asked her to think about the future.  He proposed and she accepted.  He explained that he needed to have his OCS completed first; he wanted to wait to marry Bonnie until the completion of his training.  If he didn’t pass, he would be part of the enlisted core.  His pay would not be enough to support a new wife.

Reporting to duty, Gonzales drove his Volkswagen from Tucson to San Antonio.  He went to a building that he was hoping to be assigned to work in. They showed Robert Gonzales his room.  Before reporting to dinner, he felt he made his first major mistake.  “I went into the shower.  Everything was spotless, sparkling clean.  This was a Sunday. The upperclassmen were out.  It was divided:  six weeks of upperclassman and six weeks of the new guys. The upperclassman had all the privileges, so they were out in town having a good time.  Suddenly, around six o’clock I used this shower. I went in there and one of the new guys yelled at me, ‘You can’t just use any shower. We only use one shower; the others are clean and ready. You just caused me an hour of work!’”

Looking back, Gonzales recaps the experience in OCS:  “My roommate, Matt, was a godsend. He came from a military family and he knew all the tricks. He taught me about short-sheeting the bed, sleeping on the floor, and getting up early. San Antonio is pretty hot in the summer.  I was there in June and July. The rules were that you had to have your window open at an exact amount.  You weren’t supposed to get up until 6:00 am, but if you were smart, you would get up at 4:30 am.  At that hour, you could get some water from the toilet and start to dust from the top to the baseboard.   We used to have to roll our socks and have them ready for inspection. We were allowed one small box of our own personal stuff that was not subject to inspection.  So, we would fill that with everything that would be contraband.  For example, we’d keep a pair of socks in that box. It was those socks that we would wear all the time. We never unrolled any of the inspection ready socks, those were for inspection only.   You could wash your socks and dry them by the window each night. They would dry right away and we could keep those socks ready for inspection all the time. “

Upon graduation, Gonzalez married Bonne at the Davis-Monthan the Air Force Base in Tucson, Arizona.   Lending some insight into those first few months, he recalls, “We got married on a shoestring.  We had little or no money.   We moved into a basement apartment at my first assignment at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota.  We had a shipping pallet floored shower in the bathroom and a beaded curtain between the two rooms.  Then, I spent six months in Texas for training before returning to Minot. The group up at Minot was close since everyone huddle together from the cold.”

Eventually, Robert Gonzalez got another assignment; this time to Aviano, Italy.  There he would serve as Victor Alert Duty Officer (VADO).  His job was to keep four F100 Super Saber Fighters, each armed with a nuclear bomb, ready to go at a moment’s notice. This was the front line of the Cold War.   Robert and two other officers shared this duty round-the-clock.  The goal was to launch the aircraft in two minutes or less.  The VADO watch standers would stay awake around the clock ready for a phone call; there would be a room with four pilots ready to go, so they slept with their boots on. There was a two-man policy ready for each nuclear weapon, meaning that no one person would have the codes that could launch the weapons by themselves.   The VADO watch standers and the pilots would each have a code for the nuclear weapons.  If the Klaxon (alarm) went off, the pilots would grab their stuff and run to the office. The VADO watch standers would open the safe, get out the code books, and get ready to break the code to arm the weapon.   While the VADO officers and pilots are breaking the code, the crew is starting up the plane.  Once the pilot had the launch codes, they would run out the door, jump in the cockpit and take off.  This all has to be done in two minutes.  After taking off, the pilots would have just enough fuel to reach their targets, drop the bombs and turn back; the pilots would soon eject and have to find their way back to friendly territory. But since this is the cold war, there was no use getting back to Aviano.  It was pretty clear, that if NATO and the Russians started tossing nuclear weapons, the base at Aviano would be one of the first targets. When asked if the VADO’s were worried about the fact that their base would be attacked almost immediately and most people would die, Robert replied, “Well it just didn’t matter. If they started throwing nukes you couldn’t run away fast enough. “

Robert Gonzalez received his next orders for Torrejon, Spain and worked as accounting and finance officer there.   He lived in Alcala de Henares with his wife.  Under Franco, there was no foreign banking permitted. The largest bank was the Banco-Hispano Americano.  The US government was the biggest depositor in that bank.  Since the US government was so important to the bank, they assigned a gentleman, Miguel Rincon to watch out over the account. Miguel was a top executive, who was assigned to assist Gonzalez.  He gave Gonzalez a stack of business cards to use if he needed anything.   

Although Spain was not a member of NATO, the United States needed Spain strategically.  So, the United States would always do joint exercises with the Spanish military called Pathfinder Express.  The exercises would be in Albacete in the southeast.  Robert needed a place to stay, so with only two hotels in town, Miguel set up Robert and his wife in the Residencia Albar, which was the popular place to stay at the time.  Robert and his wife lived in the penthouse suite.  The exercises began and Gonzalez was in the field all day, walking through mud in an open jeep.  He recalls what others may have thought of him:  “So every day at 5pm, cocktail time, this dirty Air Force Captain walks into the hotel lobby where all the Spanish Generals are enjoying their drinks and tapas. He takes the elevator up to the penthouse. A little while later, after a shower and shave, the Captain and his tall blonde wife arrive down for dinner, in their tailored Italian clothes (they had just been in Aviano).  To this day they are probably still wondering who that Captain was. “

During his lifetime, Robert Gonzalez spent close to six years in the military. He almost got out in four years. But Nixon was unsure of what strategy he was going to use in Vietnam.  If the United States went in full force, Nixon would need bases, and that would mean finance officers. Because of the position Gonzalez held at the time, he was not able to get out until almost his sixth year.

After leaving the military, Gonzalez first worked for a printing company.  Then he went to work at a bank.  One day, he recalls, the bank was examined.  When the bank examiners came, he realized that this might be a great job for him.  So, he applied for a federal job as a bank examiner. During the application process to the civil service, Robert Gonzalez scored very high, so he was offered a three-year management training program with the Health Education and Welfare Department. This took Robert and Bonnie to Chicago. Continuing to accelerate in the ranks, Gonzalez finally became a criminal investigator to prevent fraud on the student loan programs. There was a regional office position in San Francisco which became available, so Gonzales applied and got the job.

Relishing his years served in the military and looking ahead, Robert Gonzalez offers these thoughts for youth to ponder:  “The military today is a real opportunity.  It is not easily understood, especially in areas like Marin County.  It is a volunteer service now.  The military jobs consist of highly technical work and there are no menial tasks, anymore.  It has changed and should get a hard look by young people today. “   

Interview by Victoria Pereira on September 5, 2011.

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