By Michele Pierini
At the age of 17, fresh from graduating Bowie High School in El Paso, Texas, Roberto Tovar volunteered for military service, something he’d wanted to do since he was 13, after the Pearl Harbor bombing.
“I was very well motivated ... I was real proud of the country and real proud of everybody,” Tovar said.
His eldest sister, Consuelo, had married a man who became a machinist during WWII and many of the young men from the low-income Second Ward (Segundo Barrio) had joined the Navy, so Tovar’s enlistment wasn’t unusual. He was soon sent to a boot camp in San Diego, Calif., where he learned how to serve his country in 1945, after the end of the conflict. As a result, Tovar was involved in the restoration of war-damaged areas.
As a member of the crew of the 800-patient hospital ship U.S.S. Haven, Tovar mastered the basics and was designated a pharmacist mate. The Haven carried not only doctors and nurses, but scientists as well. One mission was to take the Manhattan Project scientists to the Bikini Atoll so they could study the effects of their atomic bombs on the native flora and fauna. Tovar recalls watching the proceedings from the top deck of the Haven off one of the Marshall Islands.
From December of 1945 to 1954, Tovar was active duty, and remained in the Navy Reserves until 1972. For his service, he was awarded a Navy Commendation Medal, a Good Conduct Medal, a Naval Reserve Medal, a Naval Expeditionary Medal, an American Campaign Medal, an Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal and a World War II Victory Medal, among other honors.
During the Korean War, Tovar was assigned to the submarine the USS Blackfin and qualified as a torpedoman. He recalls being one of the few Mexican Americans who served on submarines, yet he says he never faced discrimination.
“I was one of the lucky ones ... with good duty, good crews, everybody ... never had any complaints,” Tovar said.
The Blackfin was chosen to conduct experiments to test different systems for use on future nuclear submarines for the Naval Electronics Laboratory. On their way to the lab in San Diego, the crew docked in Pearl Harbor, where, just like in a spy movie, a captain instructed them to keep the details of destination plans a secret and to hide their ship’s identity. But when Tovar and a few of his shipmates went to a bar, the barmaid immediately recognized them and called out: “Look, here comes the guys from the Blackfin!”
Like many other torpedomen during and after WWII, Tovar discovered the joy of the “pink lady.” By word of mouth, sailors learned the fuel that powered the launch of torpedoes consisted of extremely concentrated pure-grain alcohol. In response to sailors drinking the “torpedo juice,”
a substance was added to give the alcohol an unpleasant pink color and to make it unfit for consumption.
Enterprising torpedomen, however, used loaves of bread as a filter to remove the additive. They were left with a strong drink, which was commonly mixed with grapefruit juice and poured over ice cubes to make the robust “pink lady.”
The Blackfin crew performed many rescue missions to save Marines trapped by North Korean forces. Tovar and his shipmates used rubber rafts to search the Korean coast for Marines in danger. On one mission, the enemy held a constant fire, grazing Tovar’s right leg.
“I looked down at the water and saw red and thought, ‘What the hell is going on?’” Tovar said.
Tovar says he and the men he was rescuing were taken from the Blackfin by helicopter to a port in Japan, called Yokuska, for medical attention.
Tovar says getting wounded, in addition to three tense months spent onboard a submerged submarine, watching and worrying as the food supply dwindled, were his direst military experiences.
After his discharge from naval duty, Tovar returned to his prewar job as a postal-service clerk. One of the customers was Ofelia Estrada, who owned a post office box there and would come in many times during the week to check it. While Tovar was still in the service, he’d gone out on a limb and gotten her postal address and written her letters. After a while, she began writing back and they developed a relationship.
“She started liking me,” Tovar said. “I guess she liked crazy sailors.”
Tovar and Ofelia Estrada married Sept. 22, 1952. Ten months later, they had their first child, a boy. They would go on to have a total of four boys and two girls. Eldest son Robert received a full scholastic scholarship to Stanford University, where he earned a psychology degree. After him came Dolores, an educator; Albert, who works for an electric company; Gilbert, a civil engineer; and Barbara, their youngest and a database administrative manager. Their second-to-youngest child, Herbert, followed his father’s footsteps, joining the Navy for about three years.
From a barrio in El Paso and raised by a single mother, Tovar achieved much more than his circumstances supposedly predetermined. Growing up, he didn’t even have access to a public pool, yet he says he volunteered to serve because he believed his country needed him.
“I done it because I love my country and my patriotism ... that’s funny, huh? … [H]ere comes a little guy from swimming in the canal ... but I did it ... here I am,” Tovar said.
Mr. Tovar was interviewed in El Paso, Texas, on September 1, 2007, by Maggie Rivas Rodriguez.