This "War Comes Home" story is a digital extension of Wild Blue Yonder, an exhibit of stories about the military and veterans in Southern California. It runs from April 25 through July 22 at the Riverside Art Museum.
"He was my best friend, since we were five or six years old," Andrew Melendrez said, standing with five other men wearing Veterans of Foreign Wars caps for the post in Casa Blanca, a historic Mexican American community in Riverside, named after Ysmael "Smiley" Villegas. We are at Riverside National Cemetery. Melendrez is a small man, wearing a black sweater, and he is 90 years old. This month, his best friend would have turned 90, which is why hundreds of people have gathered here today. Villegas died the day before his 21st birthday -- in 1945.
"Casa Blanca was so small, everybody knew each other," Melendrez said, looking over the crowd. "Me, I was an orphan -- my mother died when I was 9, my father when I was 13, and I picked oranges until I joined the Marines. I was in the Battle of the Bulge -- when we went across, they had the minefield set up for us. The Germans. I was wounded by a mine -- shrapnel in my leg. I spent three months in the hospital in Paris, and Smiley, he wrote to me. He was in Luzon. He wrote, "I heard you got hurt." A week later I got a letter from Riverside, from my aunt and uncle, to say he was killed."
Four men in the Honor Guard were waiting to raise the American flag and the National Medal of Honor flag. Richard De La Hoya, Post Commander for VFW 184, was born in 1945 in Casa Blanca, drafted into the 101st Airborne, and survived Hamburger Hill in Vietnam. Lorenzo Maya, born in South Texas, joined the Marines in 1965, served in Vietnam 1966-67, and moved here in 1977. Maurice Morton, born in Perris, graduated from Riverside Poly, was drafted in 1969, and served in Korea. Joe Diaz joked, "I didn't know my name was Jose until a corporal from the Ozarks called out, Jo-zee Di-az when I was in boot camp." A Casa Blanca native, he enlisted in the Marines in 1963, as a Ramona High senior. He was sent to Vietnam 1966-67.
Harvey Zamora, also from Casa Blanca, joined the Marines in 1954. He said, "I had my mother sign the enlistment papers for me. I was 17 and a half. She was crying." Zamora went to Korea, and his whole body shifted when he crouched to show me what he did. "I was in the heavy artillery, and we were just behind the line. The enemy was about 10 miles away. We were ready, because we had trained in Twentynine Palms, in the winter. We made foxholes under the snow, and we covered our shoulders with our sleeping bags. The shells, they weighed 89 pounds. Two guys would ram in the shell, and then another guy put in the powder charge. Me -- I pulled the string." His clasped hands slanted down over and over, as if he pulled the heavy string even this morning. The shells flew 14 miles. "I never saw them -- the enemy. We just shot and shot at them."
Staff Sergeant Ysmael R. Villegas did not come back.
On this day, here to honor him are: Childhood friends. Five of his sisters and one brother. Elected officials and politicians, and former neighbors. Students from the middle school named after him read an essay about Villegas' life, including the exact details of his bravery in battle, and performed the jitterbug to Glenn Miller, his favorite band.
His sister Rafaela's recollections: He loved Mutt & Jeff comics, had posters of Glenn Miller and Harry James orchestras hanging in his bedroom, and at the dances, girls loved to partner with "Smiley," who always wore a white carnation. Everyone remembers his lime green 1937 Buick, which he proudly named The Green Hornet.
A love story shared by Rafaela, Lottie, Helen, Martha, Pat, and Art, here today: Their mother came to Casa Blanca when she was 15, from Torreon, Mexico, where she was born in 1909. "My father was living here in Casa Blanca," Helen said, under a black-lace umbrella against the sun. "His friends were her brothers. He heard she was coming. They were married a year later." Fourteen children born, twelve surviving. Six brothers and six sisters. And yet, Helen said, and the others all nodded in the row of chairs facing the picture of their brother in his uniform: "Our mother never got over it -- losing her son like that. She died in 1969."
Andrew Melendrez was sent back to the front after he got the letter about Smiley's death. When Melendrez returned to Casa Blanca, he married Helen.
Some of the language of the citation on March 28, 1945, the day Villegas was posthumously awarded the National Medal of Honor, the first ever such recipient in Riverside County:
Squad leader, forward position, connected caves and foxholes, bursting grenades and demolition charges, heavy machine gunfire. Crest of the hill. Gallantry, disregard, bullets, charge, firing at point blank range. Killed the Japanese in a foxhole. Second, third, fourth, fifth, destroying the enemy within. Sixth foxhole, hit and killed by enemy fire. Inspired his men to a determined attack, swept the enemy from the field.
But there is another story. After the singing of "God Bless America," and the benediction, as the crowd mingled in the sun, someone said, "You need to talk to him." I was pointed to a shady slot of gravel between two massive cypress trees, where a man wearing a red windbreaker sat on a white folding chair.
We were left alone. His name is Javier Marquez. In July, he will be 89 years old. He was born in Los Angeles, lived across the street from Mission San Gabriel as a child, and moved to Colton. Drafted at 19 into the Army, he went to basic training with Smiley Villegas. "We used to come home together on leave," Marquez said, smiling a little, silver stubble on his cheeks transparent when the wind moved the branches and sun slanted across him.
Late in 1944, the 32nd Division left Tacloban and landed at Luzon. There were up to 20,000 men in the division, he estimated. "Smiley and I were in the same company, different platoons," Marquez said, reciting so quickly the words he must have said a thousand times when he was a soldier. "F Company, 2nd Battalion, 127th Infantry Regiment, 32nd Infantry Division. But I'd see him all the time."
"I was in a rifle platoon. We had semi-automatic M-1s. The Japanese, they had bolt action rifles. That day, as we were headed up the slope, Smiley said to me in Spanish, 'There's a lot of Japanese up on that hill.' We were up high, on a little knoll, my platoon and Smiley's. When we got out to clear the area, it was really fortified. There was heavy machine gun fire which had the company cut off. I had this other guy with me, and we moved forward. He was about 5-10 yards from me, and he got shot. He made a sound. Oof. Just that sound. I waited. I knew the Japanese guy would have to load the bolt action. I heard him, right about there." He pointed to the cypress behind me -- about five yards. "You couldn't see anything -- it was all jungle and brush and smoke and noise. I tracked him. So then he came out, and I couldn't help it. I yelled at him -- you SOB! -- he had killed my guy -- I wanted him to see my face -- he looked at me and then I shot him. He went down but I didn't even stay to see if he was dead."
He rubbed at his face, looked into the dark branches of the cypress. Then he said, "My sergeant told me, help this guy with the bazooka. We were shooting anti tank shells, and they were pointed, they weren't exploding, and we needed different rounds. I could hear all the racket from Smiley's platoon. I went down to get supplies, I went past the medic station, and there he was. On the stretcher." He had to stop. He was crying. He trembled all over, in the small chair, moved his hands over his face again, and said, "I'm sorry. I'm sorry. This story isn't about me."
But it was. He was quiet, his face reshaping itself. Then he said, "A week prior, we were on a lower slope, and there was a little valley, and the Japanese were on a high ridge. There was heavy machine gun fire, they were firing down at Smiley's platoon, off to my left about 40 yards, and they were getting peppered. Smiley said, "We're gonna go get that -- so-and-so." He was in front of his squad, just crawling up the hill. Then Smiley went around through the brush, climbed up the hill from the back, and killed the guy. Maybe an hour passed, maybe two. Here he comes up the slope, head of his squad, laughing and waving, and he had the machine gun on his back. You know, we used to have two canteens on our ammo belt." He pointed to his waist. "Smiley's canteens were full of holes where he got shot, and his clothes were all shredded from crawling up the hill and getting fired at. He was just lucky. That day, anyway."
Marquez was still staring into the swaying spears of cypress. He returned to Colton in July 1946. He joined the Air Force Reserves in 1947, served four years, then served five years in the Naval Reserves, and finally was in the National Guard for years. He has three daughters, all of whom went to college, six grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren. He lived. Yet the tiny stiff hairs on his cheeks and jaw still glistened with the remnants of saltwater rubbed from his eyes.