In the Service of Their County

The Ortegas from Saticoy

By John P. Schmal
Published on LatinoLA: February 6, 2014

In the Service of Their County

In 1908, Luciano P. Ortega was born in Oxnard as the fifth child of Valentine Ortega and his wife, Theodora Tapia. Although young Luciano and his siblings didn't appear to be different from their neighbors and fellow parishioners, they did have something that most of their neighbors didn't have. Luciano was the great-great-great-great-great grandson of Luis Quintero and his wife Maria Petra Rubio, who were among the founders of Los Angeles in September 1781.

A Unique Family

What also made the Ortega family distinct was the fact that their family had served as soldiers in the defense of California since the very beginning. Several of Luciano's ancestors had joined the Expedition of 1781 which brought a small group of Mexican soldados (soldiers) and pobladores (settlers) including Luis and Petra from Alamos, Sonora to Los Angeles. The first three generations of his family seven soldados in all had served as soldiers at the presidios of Santa Barbara and San Buenaventura.

However, even after California had become part of the United States (1848), Luciano's family had continued to defend California from foreign invaders. In the Civil War, two brothers and three cousins of Luciano's great-grandmother, Maria Antonia Olivas de Esquivel, served in the American Civil War (1861-65). All five of the soldiers were surnamed Olivas, and one of them died while in the service.

Now, in the Twentieth Century, things were different. With the acquisition of California by the U.S. in 1848, the status and influence of Mexican-Americans throughout the State of California had declined considerably over the last few decades. But to Luciano and his family, the reverses felt by Mexican-American Californians did not influence their identity as Californians. To them, California was their homeland su madre patria -- and, when called upon, they would protect their native soil.

Chello Ortega

When, Luciano was 17, his older sister, Maria Paz Ortega and her husband, Laurencio (Lorenzo) Ortega gave birth to a son, Chello Ortega. Chello was born on April 15, 1925 near Saticoy in Ventura County as the fourth of six children. Through the years, Luciano and Chello both grew up in the area of Saticoy and attended the same church and same schools and were part of the close-knit Ortega family.

World War II

In 1939, the world was plunged into a Second World War as Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany invaded Poland, only to be opposed by France and England. The United States tried to stay out of this new war, but on December 7, 1941, Japanese forces launched a surprise attack on the U.S. Fleet at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. At this point war became unavoidable, and the U.S. found itself at war with a powerful triumvirate: Japan, Germany and Italy.

The Greatest Generation

World War II did not end until 1945 (Nazi Germany was defeated in May and Japan finally surrendered in September of that year). As a result, the war effort required a massive sacrifice by Americans. Millions of people went to work in factories that built American war ships or developed weaponry for our soldiers.

And 16 million American men and woman joined the armed forces. Americans of all ethnicities, religions and political persuasions joined the Army-Air Force, the Navy or the Marines. Even though this was the second war being fought against Germany since 1917, it has been estimated that 3 million German-Americans served in the U.S. military during the war. Another 1 million African Americans served, and millions more who were of Polish, Italian, Irish, Korean and Japanese descent also served.

At the start of World War II, approximately 2,690,000 Americans of Mexican descent lived in the United States. Eighty-five percent of this population lived in the five southwestern states (California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and Colorado). Although many members of this ethnic group had been relegated to that status of second class citizens since 1848, many Mexican Americans joined the armed forces to help defend their homeland. By the end of the war, it is believed that at least half a million persons with Spanish surnames Mexican Americans, Cuban Americans, Puerto Ricans, Spanish Americans and other nationalities served in the American armed services.

Luciano Joins the Armed Forces

On September 23, 1943, Luciano P. Ortega joined the armed forces. Luciano was attached to the 34th Infantry Regiment of the 24th Infantry Division, which would fight on the front lines in the war against Japan in several crucial campaigns. The 24th Infantry Division was among the first to see combat in World War II and among the last to stop fighting. The Division was on Oahu, with its Headquarters at Schofield Barracks, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and suffered minor casualties. Charged with the defense of northern Oahu, the Division built an elaborate system of coastal defenses.

In May 1943 the 24th Infantry Division was alerted for movement to Australia and by September 19, 1943 it had moved to the eastern coast of Australia for a period of intensive training, during which Luciano Ortega joined the unit. After their training was completed, the Division took part in Operation Reckless against the Japanese Empire (the landings at Hollandia in Netherlands New Guinea) in early 1944.

Fighting in the Philippines

Later in the year, Luciano's unit would take part in the campaign to liberate Leyte in the Philippine Islands from Japanese occupation. On October 20, 1944, Luciano Ortega and the 24th Division landed at Red Beach on Leyte. The unit advanced slowly but surely up to Breakneck Ridge by November 12, 1944. The Japanese resistance was tremendous and, on November 19, Luciano was killed in action not far from Manila.

Luciano whose military record is given under the name Joseph P. Ortega was buried in the Manila American Cemetery in the capital city. He left behind a wife and family and a distraught mother who never reconciled herself to her son's death and refused to accept it. Instead, she continued to believe that he was missing in action and would someday return home to Saticoy.

Chello Ortega

Even as Luciano Ortega made his way with the 24th Division to Leyte, his nephew, Chello Ortega, was joining the war effort too and would end up in the same theater of war. Chello had joined the U.S. Army on Jan. 20, 1944 and served with Company A of the 383rd Infantry, which was attached to the famous 96th Infantry, better known as the "Deadeyes."

In fact, in October 1944, his unit joined the assault force landing in Leyte Gulf in the Philippine Islands, where they were engaged with the enemy until around Christmas time. It was during this campaign that Chello found out that his uncle, Luciano Ortega (the brother of his mother), was killed in action on November 19, 1945.

Operation Iceberg

From the end of December 1944 through March 1945, Chello's unit prepared for the next campaign: the invasion of Japanese territory. He was with the American troops that landed on Okinawa after the invasion began on April 1, 1945. The fighting was tough and the Japanese fought for every inch of the island because this was the first time American troops were landing on true Japanese soil (as opposed to occupied territories).

The Battle of Okinawa, codenamed Operation Iceberg, was the largest amphibious assault in the Pacific Theater of World War II and it lasted 82 days from early April until mid-June, 1945. Chello took part in the 383rd Infantry's attack on Conical Hill and helped to defeat a Japanese counterattack on May 13th. However, he was killed in action the following day and a day later, on May 15th, the Deadeyes finally secured Conical Hill.

Initially, Chello was reported as "missing in action." In fact, according to the military report, Chello's body was not identified until June 19th, five weeks later, and not until July did the Ortega family in the Saticoy community find out that Chello had been killed in action. Two months later, Japan would surrender and peace would finally come to America after three years and nine months of war.

Chello Ortega was buried at the Island Command Cemetery but disinterred in November 1948 and returned for burial in Ventura County. His father waited at the train station for the body to be delivered so that he could arrange for a proper burial on native soil.

Luciano Ortega and his nephew, Chello Ortega, made the ultimate sacrifice for their country in World War II. But the service of their family to the United States military did not end there. Less than a decade later, three of their nephews would serve during the Korean War (1950-1953) and other descendants would serve in Vietnam.

Even today, at the time of this writing, members of this family continue to serve on active duty in the Indian Ocean. After 233 years, this Mexican-American family continues to serve its nation and defend its native soil.

About John P. Schmal:
John P. Schmal is a genealogical researcher who specializes in tracing families from Zacatecas, Guanajuato, Jalisco and Aguascalientes.

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