Gilbert "Gabby" Valenzuela


interview by Rudy M. Lucero

I was born in Tucson, Arizona, and raised in Barrio El Hoyo on El Paso Street. I recall my childhood as a great time in my life, with the Carillo School playground close by. For lack of store-bought toys games were invented, such as choosing upsides and going to the Santa Cruz River to play "War". In those days the river was always running with some water, even in the dry season. Sun flowers grew wild around the river and we would yank them out of the mud and use them as spears against each other. Of course, you could see a clump of mud coming toward you and if you were light on your feet you could side-step it. Shields made of cardboard would afford some protection. On the way home there was the irrigation ditch flowing north from the river and we would wash the mud off our clothes by going swimming prior to going home.

I remember an older boy by the name of Henry Hurtado whose father used to repair cars at home, and Henry had access to inner tube rubber. He was the neighborhood expert sling-shot maker and a very popular guy with the kids since he wouldn't charge us for the "toys", but maybe not too popular with the older folks. Nowadays they would be considered dangerous weapons, but then, so are marbles and tops, which were our other play things.

My father was born in Alamos, Sonora, Mexico and came to the United States to work in the mines. It was here he met his wife-to-be, my mother, who was a widow with one child. After an injury suffered in the mine he went to work for a Mr. Peterson at the Fresno Peak Ranch where he soon became a ranch foreman. I was the third of five children and I remember working with my father at the ranch during summer vacations. My father built our house on El Paso Street where we would stay to attend school. Also I had a newspaper route as a kid.

I got my nickname because as a kid I used to stutter and repeat myself and about the time I was in fourth grade I was constantly being kept after school. It seems that any time I had to pass the word from one end of the room to the other it would take me so long to whisper it that I would almost always get caught. When I was kept after school I had to wipe the blackboards clean with a wet rag and pound the chalk out of the erasers outside on the stair banister. My teacher, Miss White, would join me there and at the same time work on my stuttering. I give her all the credit for getting me to stop stuttering; without being a linguist but by caring she was able to help me.

Towards the end of World War II my older brother, Jesus, was killed at the Lingayen Gulf in the Philippines. He was with the 5th Ranger Battalion. It was a tough blow to the family and I dealt with it by joining the Paratroopers in my junior year of high school. I arrived in Marysville, California, by train along with other Tucson inductees. From there we went to Camp Beale and then a long train ride to Fort Benning, Georgia, where I trained and made thirty-plus jumps with the 82nd Airborne Division. I then went to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, for training with the 187th Parachute and Glider Regiment.

Next came a boat trip on the USS President Jackson headed for Hokaido, Japan, where I was assigned to receiving and processing Japanese from the Diplomatic Corps who were coming back from foreign service and I was also assigned to guarding a radio station. For mustering out I was sent back to Fort Bragg.

I learned discipline, pride in myself and my unit, and acquired confidence. I found it easy to adjust to this new life and am proud to have belonged to such an elite outfit.

Back in Tucson I decided I would like to become a commercial artist so I attended an art school at the Temple of Music and Art and also attended classes at the University of Arizona. About this time my brother-in-law, Richard Noriega, talked me into joining "E" Company of the Marine Reserves. When the Company was activated for the Korean War I had gone into the inactive Reserve so I wasn't called up until October of 1950.

My first assignment with the Marines at Camp Mathews Rifle Range as a rifle instructor. Next, I went to San Diego as a Drill Instructor, where I had Gilbert Ruelas, another "E" Company member, in the first training platoon. When they found out I had been a paratrooper I was assigned to El Toro Air Field as a Safety Officer in parachute rigging and I did two more jumps in the Marine Corps - I guess they wanted to make sure I had done good in the rigging. This assignment kept me from being sent to Korea. I was discharged as a Buck Sergeant in November of 1951.

Home again, I went to work for Grand Central Aircraft for a year and a half and when it closed down I moved to California with my wife, Mercy, and worked for North American Aviation as a check-out electrician. In my spare time I attended Los Angeles City College and, later, Santa Monica City College. By then we had two children and I started working at Douglas Aircraft as a draftsman- my first true engineering job, where I worked under the Boss' son, Douglas, Jr. I did a lot of traveling between Santa Monica and Edwards Air Force Base as a trouble shooter- the best job l ever had! By this time the Los Angeles area was beginning to go bad, smog wise, so I landed a job with Hughes and came back to Tucson. Hughes had not yet started building its complex south of the airport, so you could say I got in on the ground floor. I saw a lot of changes, including going from radio tubes to circuit boards. When I retired I was a section chief in charge of two engineering laboratories.

I credit the Marine Corps for instilling in me a sense of independence, discipline, espirit de corps and the extra push for using my initiative.

I was asked to compare the paratroopers with the Marines; well, most paratroopers could be Marines, but not many Marines could be paratroopers, simply because Marines are smarter - who would think of jumping out of a perfectly good airplane?

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