By Barrett Williams
Flying at full speed above Australia in a C-47 during WWII, radioman Alberto Rede heard bullets ripping through the plane, followed by a sputtering engine.
His mind raced: If power to the engines is lost, the plane will become a gliding, uncontrollable mass that could drop out of the sky.
As the plane navigated its way to a safe landing, with tires screeching, Private Rede and the other crew members heaved in relief. Afterward, when the damage was surveyed, Rede realized he was lucky to be alive: One of the bullets came through the floor only 6 inches from his seat. It was later determined it was quite possibly gunfire from a U.S. Marine, he recalled. Had more bullets been fired at the plane, there could have been several men returned to the States in body bags.
Rede was born poor in 1921 in the small West Texas town of Redford, on the U.S.-Mexico border. When he was 5, his family – parents, two brothers and five sisters – moved approximately 75 miles away to the larger town of Marfa, where the children could attend school.
“I didn’t know I was poor,” Rede said. “I had a very happy childhood.”
Since the floor in his house was made of dirt, he recalled using water to harden the soil so dust would not get kicked up. His father, Eusebio Rede, was a farmer and a wise man with no formal education, he said.
Dad spoke only Spanish, but Mom, Antonia Lujan Rede, had some education and learned to speak English.
“She loved English,” Rede said. “We got our education in high school and college because she insisted.”
As a child, young Alberto worked several different jobs to help around the house and buy items he wanted. He worked as a farmer with his father in Redford, and then for the ore mines in Shafter, Texas, hauling mostly silver and copper to railroad stations. He also worked at a drugstore, earning about $1 a day. He bought his first suit for $30 with money he earned at the store, he said.
Rede attended high school in Alpine, Texas, approximately 26 miles away from Marfa. At Alpine High School, he was active in school recreational activities, playing on the football and basketball teams, as well as running track. If significant tension existed between Anglos and Latinos at Alpine High School at the time, he didn’t pick up on it.
“If they were racist or prejudice, I guess I didn’t know the difference,” he said, when discussing the way Anglos acted toward Latinos.
After high school, he studied for two years at Alpine’s Sul Ross College, now Sul Ross State University. Then he was drafted in 1942.
He originally went to basic training in Boca Raton, Fla. He said he loved the training he received because it kept him moving and gave him hope of pursuing a career as a pilot.
“I’ve always loved the military,” Rede said. “Since I was a kid I had wanted to be a pilot.”
When he was shipped overseas from San Francisco, he was assigned work as an Air Force radio operator in the Pacific, providing supplies in a C-47 cargo plane. He remembered the water trip from the U.S. West Coast to the Pacific taking 28 days.
Rede considers himself lucky because he was never really close to front-line shooting. The 2,500 hours of flight experience he put in before the war were helpful in flying the supply missions in which no parachutes were brought on the plane, he said. His most precious cargo was $1 million in military pay.
Due to a stint with malaria, Rede was discharged at the rank of Staff Sergeant in 1945, and was recovering at a hospital when the war ended. On Dec. 25, 1946, he married his childhood sweetheart, Esperanza Flores, whom he met when he was in the 8th grade. The couple had two children, Martín and Marta.
Rede yearned for education, and used his GI Bill to attend Columbia University, where he earned his Master’s degree in Spanish. After 20 years of teaching, he and his family traveled to 14 European countries in a VW camper. Wanting to share his love of education with others, he spent 42 years altogether as a teacher, 27 of those at San Pedro High School in California.
“[Education]’s my life. Get all of the education you can,” he said.
Mr. Rede was interviewed at his home in El Paso, Texas, on October 12, 2004, by Robert Rivas.