By Maria E. Garcia
Veterans of World War II returned home deeply changed by their experience. They found that Logan Heights and San Diego had also been changed by the war. The effort to find a new normalcy would be interrupted by the Korean War.
This is part I of the Korean War and the 1950s, viewed through the experiences of Johnny Leyva who grew up in Logan Heights.
To understand the 1950s and the activities at Neighborhood House, you have to become familiar with the role of Latinos in the Korean War, as well as how the nation as a whole reacted to this “police action.” In addition to those two factors, you must consider the transformation taking place in the City of San Diego and across the United States. World War II had brought a unity to the community. Everyone saw it as an “us against them” war.
During WWII the women in the community around Neighborhood House not only took the role as bread winner and worked in non-traditional jobs, such as the aircraft industry, but aided in the war effort. During WWII many of the women from Neighborhood House worked as volunteers to wrap bandages to contribute to the war effort. By the time of the Korean War many of those same women were working outside the home. Between these two wars, Latino soldiers returned having proven themselves as loyal Americans.
They returned as war heroes, recipients of Purple Hearts and Congressional Medals of Honor. They had the distinct honor of being awarded more Purple Hearts than any other ethnic group. Like the rest of the United States, more women were employed and continued to work outside the home. In the five years between the two wars many former GI’s went on to college with the help of the GI Bill.
There was an evolution taking place socially, in Logan Heights as well as across the whole city of San Diego. Part of that evolution stemmed from the anger many returning veterans felt, who had seen themselves as Mexican Americans, but returned to cities across this country where they were simply viewed as Mexicans. This opened the door for activism on the part of many of those returning in the service to THEIR country.
San Diego has always had a love fest with the history of Mexicans and Spaniards, but have not been supportive of the many positive contribution made by Mexican Americans. Negative press articles, stereotypical stories and even celebrations failed to focus on the Mexican American.
In 1948 the Cabrillo Highway, also known as Highway 395, opened. It connected downtown and Mission Valley. Today this Highway is known as Highway 163. The San Diego Zoo had reached “world famous” status. Mexico had developed its own port in Ensenada and did not have to depend on the Port of San Diego to send goods to foreign ports. Change had come to San Diego in many different forms. Richard F. Pourade, editor emeritus of the San Diego Union, in his book “City of Dreams” described San Diego as a “critical unemployment area.” This too would change within a few months of the Korean War.
Then came the Korean War. This war was labeled a “police action.” In this article I will refer to the “Korean War” for two reasons. One, I could not face the families that lost their loved ones by reducing what had occurred to a police action. Two, out of respect for all the soldiers that served in that war and especially for those that did not return, I feel I must refer to it as a “war.”
The Korean War lasted between June 25, 1950 and July 1953. In June of 1950, North Korea, with the support of the Soviet Union and China, invaded South Korea. The United States provided 88 % of the United Nations military personnel. The UN troops had better helmets and enough food supplies for their men. Anyone over the age of sixty remembers the “air raids’ when school students practiced getting under their desk in order to “be protected” from an attack from the Soviet Union. The “cold war,” a struggle between capitalism and communism, had an effect on families throughout San Diego.
To San Diego and the families around the Neighborhood House, war meant employment. The aircraft industry was hiring both men and women to build the airplanes needed for the war. Employment at Convair or Rohr was viewed as a great job. These jobs were well paying and seen as a progressive step for most families. Coach Pinkerton, through his contacts, was very willing to refer one of “his boys” for employment in the aircraft industry.
North Island, across the bay, was hiring civilian employees, which was another coveted source of employment and a simple ferry ride across the bay. Billboards urged tourist to visit San Diego, opening employment for the locals as housekeepers, cooks and gardeners. Both World War II and the Korean War, along with the military, added to the conservative climate found in San Diego. This factor still affects San Diego even today.
Once again the men from Logan Heights were called upon to fight for liberty in a foreign land. When I spoke to many of those that were in their teens and not of age to volunteer or to be drafted for the Korean War, there was not the same reaction as when I spoke to the youth of World War II. Upon further study it was clear that it was a normal reaction that was found across the United States.
Unlike WWII, there was not that constant fear that San Diego would be invaded by Korea. There were no the blackouts or food rationing. For the youth of Logan Heights and at Neighborhood House it, was a much more carefree atmosphere than had been witnessed during previous wars. Dances held at Neighborhood House or the War Memorial were the talk of the youth from Neighborhood House.
Johnny Leyva is a Korean War Veteran born in 1933. He grew up across the street from the Neighborhood House in one of the little houses owned by Mike Amador, a well -known Logan Heights businessman and community activist. At the age of nineteen he joined the Marine Corps. He believed as an immigrant that he owed this country something. He says part of the reason was that “it is in his blood.” His grandparents had been involved in the Mexican revolution and fighting in a civil war seemed liked the right thing to do.
Within a few weeks of his arrival in Korea, the war had come to an end. The armistice had been signed, but the shooting had not stopped. Johnny was sent to an outpost to tear down the bunkers. Shortly thereafter he was given the assignment of driving an ambulance. He says it was not unusual for him to return to the post with bullet holes in the ambulance.
As a teenager and prior to his enlistment, Johnny held many jobs around San Diego. Like many of the other boys, he delivered newspapers. He did not have enough money to purchase the newspapers to sell so he relied upon a friend lent him the money. Johnny always felt that he had to help his mom, since at that time it was “just the two of us. “
He took a job delivering telegrams. One day he had been given the responsibility of delivering them in Coronado. He was riding his bike around Coronado when several men asked him what he was doing knocking on doors in that community. He explained he was delivering telegrams. Their first response to him was ‘bull shit” and then they proceeded to beat him up. They took his bike, scattered the telegrams on the ground, and took the little money he had.
When he told the Coronado Police what had happened, they put him in the police car and drove him to the Coronado City limits sign on the strand and dropped him off. There was no offer of support, or an offer to give him money to return on the ferry. Johnny walked from Imperial Beach to his house on Beardsley in Logan Heights.
His employment at the San Diego Zoo came about with the help of a friend, Joe Diaz. Mr. Diaz lived across the street from the Metro Theater and was employed at the Zoo. According to Johnny, Joe’s probation officer has gotten him the job at the zoo. In turn, Joe put in a good word for Johnny. When he was asked why he wanted a job, his reply was very simple; “to put food on the table and to get through high school.” One of duties at the zoo was to care for the bird population.
Johnny Leyva’s story continues next week with more more of his memories about his life in San Diego after the Korean War.
The complete History of Neighborhood House in Logan Heights series is available here.