By Bryce Pohlmeyer
A trip to Alaska can be conjured from the comfort of a faded brown recliner and the churning of boat propellers almost can be heard from an Alpine, Texas, living room.
Those memories are cherished by Antonio Rojo who as a young child faced discrimination only to be drafted into the Army Air Forces during World War II.
Rojo said that he came from a family of 13, and everyone did something to bring in some extra income. The girls, for example, took in laundry. Everyone picked cotton. Rojo remembered his older sister pulling him around in the cotton bags they used. Growing up in the small town of Alpine, 220 miles southeast of El Paso, Rojo witnessed the struggle to get through the Great Depression, along with the ethnic discrimination that split the community.
"People over there, they didn't like us," Rojo said. "It was pretty hard. Sometimes we couldn't even go to the picture show, because we couldn't cross the railroad. Every time we tried to cross over, there was a fight." At 14, one of Rojo's friends went to jail at Christmas. Under the circumstances, however, Rojo's parents seemed to accept the fact that he fought, even if it upset them, he recalled. "We didn't know what birthday presents were because we couldn't afford it," Rojo said. "Once in a while, my older brother brought me something to play with." Rojo said that he wore clothes donated from the Red Cross so he could attend school. He was a student at the segregated Centennial School, where most of the student body was Mexican-American and most of his teachers were non-Latino Whites. Rojo learned to speak English in school, although to him it seemed that "they just sent anybody" to teach.
Even though he liked school, Rojo dropped out in the eighth grade.
He joined the Civilian Conservation Corps after lying about his age. Rojo said that he went to work in 1939 at Big Bend National Park, where he made $30 a month, $25 of which he sent back home. That practice of sending most of his money home would continue after he joined the Army Air Forces in 1942. In 1942, Rojo and two of his brothers received draft notices. One of them decided to enlist instead. Rojo and his third brother joined the Army Air Forces. He received some training in Lubbock, Texas, and San Antonio until finally catching a boat ride to Anchorage. Rojo suspected the U.S. had a presence in Alaska because of possible attacks.
"They didn't trust them," Rojo chuckled, referring to the U.S. and its Japanese adversaries.
While in Alaska, Rojo trained as a medical technician in the Air Forces' 10th Rescue Squadron. Rojo responded to calls for medical attention. Planes flew him and other medics to treat patients on scene or took them back to the base for further treatment.
Rojo said he never saw any serious injuries. But he said that getting used to Alaska took some time.
"I had an experience the first night. I went to bed, and a light came on. I thought it was time to get up, and I get up, went to the mess hall, and the cook was only getting there," Rojo said. "It was four o'clock in the morning, and the sun was up!"
Rojo also need to adjust to serving alongside Anglos for the first time in his life. Even with a few fights, tempers were not as high as they had been in Alpine. "I felt alright. Everything changed to me. It was different the way I was treated here, and the way I was treated there," Rojo said, referring to Alpine.
Rojo's stay in Alaska was not without some heartache. He missed his mother's cooking.
"My mother used to send me some tortillas with chili con queso. A guy from New York used to ask me if a got a package from home; he liked it," Rojo said.
Rojo met Eloisa Cordova before leaving for Alaska. They wrote to each other until he returned home. When he finally returned to Alpine in 1947, though, she wasn't the first person he wanted to see. "I looked for my gang, my friends," he laughed. "I don't know."
Rojo and Cordova were married in 1963. They had one daughter, who lived in Alpine along with his grandchildren. He is the last of his siblings. His wife died of emphysema in 1992. He struggled with discrimination in his hometown and with desegregation in the Army Air Forces, all while keeping his smile and remaining proud.
"I thought I did my duty," Rojo said. "That I was able to defend my country for my people and their people to live ... I am proud."
Mr. Rojo was interviewed by Liliana Rodriguez in Alpine, Texas, on Aug. 3, 2010.