The Summer of ’42, patriotism and childhood’s end
By Maria E. Garcia
The men from Logan Heights left for Europe and the Western Pacific during War War II. San Diego in the 1940’s was alive with military action. Newspapers were full of stories about defending the home front, men were training for military duty and bunkers were being built on Point Loma. If my source is correct there is a bunker by Chavez Parkway and Main Street.
In Logan Heights a favorite game became playing army. Visualize looking across the bay to Coronado. You see ships leaving and preparing to go across the ocean to defend our country. Newspapers and the radio had constant reminders of the dangers of living in a military town on the western side of our country. In this atmosphere Tortilla’s Army was born.
As in every Army there was a general. In this case the general was Manuel “Tortilla” Ojeda. Manuel is Connie Hernandez’s uncle. General Tortilla was born in 1926, thus by 1942 he was sixteen years old and ready to lead this army with kids as young as five and as old as thirteen and fourteen.
The army started out rather small, maybe 12 guys but grew over a short period of time as the kids marched around the neighborhood. They marched down National Avenue or Beardsley (Cesar Chavez Parkway) picking up new recruits along the way. According to the late Bill Lopez it was Tortillas’ idea to form the army.
Unlike other war games children played, this game was more realistic. Guns were made from sticks and rubber bands. Those lucky enough to own BB guns would proudly carry them as they marched around Logan Heights to defend their land. They would meet in an empty lot by the Neighborhood House. Today this location houses the Nuevo Mexico Café.
One of the favorite pastimes of the kids in the neighborhood was to peek through the clinic window and watch some of the service men faint. At times bets were taken about which one of the guys would faint first.
The army consisted of some of Tortilla’s younger cousins, neighborhood friends and his younger brother Nando. Because of family or friendship ties they were much easier to control and more willing to follow Tortilla’s orders than a stranger would be. Nando Ojeda is Connie Hernandez’ dad. Nando was very interested in current events and he would faithfully listen to the news on the radio, or read the newspapers on a regular basis.
He would then report back to General Tortilla. Derogatory terms were used to describe the Japanese and Germans in those days. Those terms were heard on a regular basis and read daily in the newspapers. To make their game more realistic, some of the boys were assigned to play the role of the enemy. If the enemy got caught they became POWs. Some of the stories sounded as if they were tortured for being the enemy.
There was always something or someone to remind you that we were at war. Many of the service men were brought to the clinic at Neighborhood House to receive the series of immunizations they needed before going off to war. One of the favorite pastimes of the kids in the neighborhood was to peek through the clinic window and watch some of the service men faint. At times bets were taken about which one of the guys would faint first. A special pleasure was derived if the fainter was a BIG guy or one of the neighborhood guys that was seen as a real tough guy.
There was also a flag system to remind them which household had family members off at war. Flags were placed in the window for everyone to see. A red star signified that you had a family member serving overseas. A yellow star told the community that your family member had died. This visual was a constant reminder that fathers, uncles, brothers and friends were fighting a war in a foreign land.
The summer of ’42 was the year that Tortilla’s Army flourished. There would be other summers but none would compare to the excitement the boys felt in 1942. Tortilla’s Army had drills, and they would march around the streets up and down Beardsley, Newton, and National Avenue. They even planned war strategies.
Guns were made of sticks and rubber bands. Bill Lopez wrote about some of the variation in the ammunition in an essay he wrote about Tortilla’s Army. “For instance, Paddy boy (David Rodriquez Jr.) liked to make ‘machine guns’ that fired at least five rubber bands in rapid succession. Instead of clothespins, he would cut notches on a wooden stick and lay a leather thong over the notches before stretching, in the proper order, several rubber bands were added to the notches. To fire the device he would pull on the leather thong, thus launching a barrage of rubber bands.”
Anyone that knew Bill Lopez remembers him as a very bright and intelligent man. He graduated from SDSU in 1962 with a Master’s degree in physics. What most people do not know is that Bill’s ability in science started with Tortilla’s Army. At least I would like to think so. It was Bill’s chemistry set that was used to make stink bombs for Tortilla’s Army.
Bill would work for 17 years in the Chemistry Dept. at Southwestern College. However, in 1942 his interest in science was used to assist Tortilla’s Army. At Bills memorial service Aida spoke of how proud Bill was to have been a member of the infamous Tortilla’s Army.
Oscar Torres remembers that Tortilla would make them march near and around the Neighborhood House and that the boys would all listen to him. They took this maneuver very seriously and did not balk at having to march or do pushups. Several of the boys did not have boots and used black shoe polish to “make” boots on their feet and legs. Aida Lopez, Bill’s wife, remembers him telling her that they used cardboard to enhance the illusion of a boot. The cardboard was place around the ankle and held in place by a rubber band. The cardboard was then painted with black shoe polish and thus represented the upper portion of the boot.
A reporter for either LIFE or LOOK magazine saw the boys and wrote a short article about Tortilla’s Army. The magazine article was followed by articles in the local newspaper about the Army. One of the articles focused on the canteens the boys had made for themselves. Aida believes the boys used cloth to cover whatever bottle they could find to make the “canteens.” In Bill’s essay he referred to the use of burlap over liquor bottles found in trash cans to make the much needed canteens. The local newspaper carried stories on Tortilla’s Army which resulted in donations of Army surplus items. The little Army from Logan Heights now had old Army helmets and backpacks thanks to the donations of San Diegans.
Newspapers carried stories about the possibility of San Diego being bombed or invaded. It was not unusual for the radio and newspapers to constantly focus on the danger of an invasion. It was Nando’s responsibility to report to Tortilla on the possibility of an invasion of Logan Heights by the Japanese. Nando would sit by the radio and listen to the various programs in order to help plan war strategies.
The possibility of an invasion resulted in the boys digging a trench behind Lowell school (Perkins School). The purpose of the trench was to protect Logan Heights from a Japanese invasion. This was not an easy task for the boys. A few of the boys had shovels to dig the trench and worked diligently to dig the protective barrier. If you didn’t have a shovel you could always borrow a large cooking spoon from your mother’s kitchen. No matter the amount of hard labor, these boys would protect their little school and Logan Heights from falling into the hands of the Japanese Army.
In addition to defending Logan Heights, Tortilla’s Army would produce plays on the playground behind Neighborhood House. They would attend a movie at the local movie theater and then re-enact what they had seen. At different times, gangster, cowboys or mounted police were portrayed. Tono Núñez remembers that they found an old buckboard that became a prop for a cowboy play. The scene that Tono remembers is Nando and Tortilla on the buckboard staging a fight scene.
The Ojeda brothers had very active imaginations and were great story tellers. They also had the ability to mimic various voices and would make sure they sounded like a German or Japanese military persons. Capping on each other and using nick names was a way of life. The use of nicknames is very common in the Latino community: shorty, cojo, feo, dirt, gordo and so on is, and was, often heard in the community. In some ways it could be considered cruel or mean spirited, but at that time it was seen as toughing you up and perfectly natural. Today nicknames are still used and at times are less than kind.
After the summer of 1942 Tortilla’s Army slowly died. There are a couple of reasons that can be given for the disappearance of Tortilla’s Army. One explanation that was expressed by several of the men was that with all the newspaper publicity Tortilla got a bit of a swollen head and became a little too bossy for the boys. After the newspaper articles Tortilla had added General to his title.
Bill Lopez also believed that with the beginning of the Zoot Suit riots the glamour of being seen as a member of the military (Tortilla’s Army) was no longer there. I am inclined to believe both of the explanations. As the boys got older they were not as willing to obey orders and allow Tortilla to boss them. The second reason would be the inner conflict of portraying a member of the military while watching sailors beat up on Latinos in Logan Heights.
The Los Angeles Zoot Suit riots received a lot of publicity. The Zoot Suit riots, which occurred in Los Angeles in June 1943, had a ripple effect in San Diego, creating a tension with sometimes violent outcomes between sailors and local police and the Mexican American youth sub-culture that defined itself as pachuco. Some of the guys remember sailors coming into the neighborhood and asking if they had seen any Zoot Suitors. In Logan Heights the Cherry gang was fighting with the military men. Military men came looking for “pachucos”.
Tono was asked by some sailor/marines if he had seen any pachucos. His response was “yeah, they went that way.” Of course he pointed in the opposite directions from where the pachucos had gone. Newspapers were flooded with stories about the Zoot Suitors and the threat they posed to the American way of life. Some of the luster of being a military man would be destroyed by the negative manner Latinos in general and Zoot Suitors in particular were portrayed in the press.
The innocence of Tortilla’s Army and the summer of 1942 would be lost forever.
A very special thanks to Connie Ojeda Hernandez, Aida Cazares Lopez Lugo, and Maggie Padilla for sharing so many stories about their family and about their Neighborhood House experiences. Bill Lopez’ essay on Tortilla’s Army was invaluable in understanding what this group of young kids had contributed to San Diego History and to Logan Heights in particular. Thank you to the late Bill Lopez for valuing your Tortilla’s Army experience enough to leave such a detailed essay.
Next week’s article is Part II: Viva Tortilla’s Army! Lasting Friendships, Family Ties and Community
The complete History of Neighborhood House in Logan Heights series is available here.