Defending American Shores: One Family's Service to Country

The strong commitment of one Mexican-American family to the defense of America

By Jennifer C. Vo and John P. Schmal
Published on LatinoLA: May 4, 2016

Defending American Shores: One Family's Service to Country

Dedication: This article is dedicated to the memory of Eusebio "Chevy" Javier Basulto, Specialist, Fourth Class (1953-2016).

The state of California is a very special place for many people. Millions have come here from other parts of the United States and from around the world to live, work, and prosper. My name is Jennifer Vo and for me and my family, California is truly a very special place. This may be due to the fact that – my Chumash Indian ancestry notwithstanding – I am an eleventh-generation Californian of Mexican descent.

In recent months some negative comments about Mexicans have flooded the media. Some people even seem to regard the word "Mexican" as synonymous with "foreigner" or "alien." But those people don't realize that many Mexican Americans have invested a great deal in this country. One need only look at my family to understand that many Mexican Americans have dedicated their lives to defending the United States. And three members of my family died while in the service of the United States military (including two in World War II).

A Great Source of Pride

From my earliest memories, my family has always expressed great pride in its California roots. When my mother, Sarah Melendez Basulto Evans, was just a teenager, she went to her grandfather's funeral in Oxnard, California. After the church service, the family drove to the Santa Clara Cemetery in Oxnard for the burial service.

Recounting that day almost 50 years ago, my mother said, "Once the graveside service had ended, Uncle Simon [Melendez] took me for a long walk, pointing out the various tombstones for many of our ancestors. I was amazed that he could recount so many stories and names from our family history. As we walked along, Uncle Simon explained to me that our family had been in California for a very, very long time. For him, this was a great source of pride. I remember his words very clearly when he said, 'Our family has known no home but California. This is where we belong.' From that day forward, I have always felt a great emotional attachment to California, the land of my ancestors."

My mother told me that Uncle Simon had explained to her that our California family has had a long and proud tradition of military service extending back to our earliest California ancestors. One generation after another had joined the military to defend the only land that we could call home. And, although Mexican Americans in California have been treated unfairly at times, our resolve to defend this state and this country has never wavered. Growing up, my mother expressed these sentiments to me, and for this reason, I have always been proud of my family's military service.

From the first moment Juan Matias Olivas entered California in 1781 -- and for the better part of eleven generations -- my family has played a role in the defense of California. Over a period of two centuries, the flags, the causes, and the surnames have changed, but my family's legacy of military service to California has endured.

In the Service of Spain

Four of the soldiers who took part in the "Expedition of 1781" to establish the Pueblo of Los Angeles in California were my ancestors, including my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, Juan Matias Olivas, an Indian from the city of Rosario in the present-day Mexican state of Sinaloa, who in 1780, enlisted for ten years as a Spanish soldado de cuera (leather-jacket soldier). A year later, Juan Matias Olivas and his wife embarked to California on the expedition of 1781, which was a 960-mile journey through hostile territory. Juan Matias and his family were present at the founding of the Pueblo of Los Angeles in September 1781 and were later housed in the Santa Barbara Presidio.

In 1798, Juan Matias was discharged from the military after eighteen years of service. He retired with his family to the Los Angeles Pueblo. At the same time, Juan Matias retired, his son, Jose Pablo Olivas, my great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather, followed in his footsteps, becoming a soldier at the Santa Barbara Presidio. Juan Pablo died in 1817 when his son Jose Dolores Olivas was only fifteen, but Jose Dolores also joined the military, becoming the third generation of Olivas soldiers.

Becoming American

In April 1822, news reached California that Mexico had achieved its independence from Spain and suddenly my ancestor Jose Dolores Olivas became a Mexican soldier. Between 1830 and 1850, Dolores Olivas and his wife became the parents of twelve children, including my great-great-great-great-grandmother, Maria Antonia Olivas (who was born in 1834). During this twenty-year period, Dolores retired, and California became a part of the United States, as a result of the Mexican-American War, which ended on January 13, 1847 with the signing of the Treaty of Cahuenga.

A year later, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed on February 2, 1848, granting American citizenship to my Olivas ancestors. At the time of the 1850 American census, my great-great-great-great-grandmother, Maria Antonia Olivas -- now an American citizen -- was only 15 years of age. María Antonia Olivas was truly a daughter of the California military establishment. She was descended from five pioneer California families (Olivas, Fernández, Valenzuela, Feliz and Quintero) and eight of her male ancestors had been California soldiers.

Serving Under a New Flag

The American Civil War (1861-1865) divided the American people into two camps and resulted in more casualties than any other war in American history. Many of the hostilities in this war took place in the eastern half of North America, especially in the Southern states. For the most part, California -- which became the 31st American state in 1850 -- seemed far removed from most of the battlefields and action that was taking place.

However, in 1863, the United States Government became concerned about possible Confederate incursions of California. In order to avoid such an invasion, the U.S. Government authorized the military governor of California to organize four military companies of Mexican-American Californians into a cavalry battalion in order to utilize their "extraordinary horsemanship." Major Salvador Vallejo was selected to command this new California militia, with its five hundred soldiers of Spanish and Mexican descent and the First California Native Cavalry was born.

The First California Native Cavalry

Soon after, Maria Antonia's two brothers, Jose Victoriano Olivas and Felipe Olivas, enlisted, as did their three first cousins, Antonio, Pablo and Blas Olivas. Initially the Native Cavalry guarded supply trains, marched in parades, worked on irrigation projects and patrolled the California waterfront in the Los Angeles area.

The Five Olivas Cousins

In March 1865, Brigadier General John S. Mason announced that the Native Cavalry would be traveling eastward to fight Apache Indians. Once they had reached Arizona, the battalion was also charged with patrolling the International Line with Mexico. At this time, the French were occupying Mexico, but a full-fledged insurgency was taking place against the occupiers and the possibility of hostile forces crossing into the United States was real. On April 9, 1865, after four years of civil war which led to an estimated 630,000 deaths and at least a million casualties General Robert E. Lee surrendered the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia to Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, in Virginia.

However, although the war had ended, the Native Cavalry continued to do its duty, operating against Indian insurgents, pursuing bandits and guarding the southern border of Arizona from the spring of 1865 until April 1866. One of the five Olivases, Jose Pablo Olivas, died from tuberculosis during this time. But eventually the four surviving Olivas cousins were mustered out. Because the military tradition had been such a strong factor in my family's history, my ancestors took great pride in their service, and many Santa Barbara residents welcomed them heartily upon their return in the spring of 1866. At the time they were mustered out, the veterans of the Native Cavalry C were welcomed home with a parade and two-day fiesta in Santa Barbara.

World War II

On December 7, 1941, an event that affected every American took place. The surprise attack on the American naval fleet at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii brought America into the struggle against Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and the Japanese Empire, a triumvirate of tyranny. And when Uncle Sam called for recruits, his call was answered. By the end of the war in September 1945, sixteen million men and women had worn the uniform of America's armed forces.

Uncle Luciano

In 1942, my great-uncle Luciano P. Ortega -- the brother of my great-grandmother Isabel 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. After a period of intensive training, the Division took part in operations in New Guinea in early 1944. Later in the year, Uncle Luciano's unit would take part in the campaign to liberate the Japanese from Leyte in the Philippine Islands.

The Ultimate Sacrifice (Luciano Ortega)

On October 20, 1944, Uncle Luciano and the 24th Division landed on Leyte and advanced steadily to Breakneck Ridge by November 12, 1944. The Japanese resistance was tremendous and, on November 19, Uncle Luciano was killed in action. He was buried in the Manila American Cemetery in the capital city. My great-great-grandmother, Theodora Tapia Ortega, 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.

The Ultimate Sacrifice (Chello Ortega)

Late in World War II, Chello O. Ortega, the son of Paz Ortega (a sister of Luciano and Isabel Ortega) and Laurencio Ortega, went to war. He was the second Ortega to go to the Army from Saticoy and -- like his uncle Luciano -- was sent to the Pacific Theater. On May 8, 1945, Nazi Germany had surrendered unconditionally to Allied forces. However, the war in the Pacific Theater continued unabated. From the end of December 1944 through March 1945, Chello's unit, the 383rd Infantry, prepared for the invasion of Japanese territory.

Cousin Chello 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'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, his unit 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.

The Korean War

As World War II drew to an end, the three Melendez brothers – the sons of Refugio Melendez and Isabel Ortega and brothers to my grandmother Dora – were teenagers. The Korean War began in 1950, only five years after the end of World War II. Within the next four years, all three of my grandmother's brothers, Raymond, Donald (Danny) and Simon Melendez, would serve in the United States Army. Raymond (Raymundo) Ortega Melendez had been born in 1929 and yearned to join the military. In 1945, at the age of 17 – with his parents' permission – Ray entered the American armed forces. This would mark the beginning of a long military career, which would take him through the Korean and Vietnam Wars before his retirement in 1969. By the time he retired from the military, Uncle Ray had achieved the rank of Command Sergeant Major.

Behind Enemy Lines (Simon Melendez)

Born on October 28, 1930, Simon Ortega Melendez was raised in Saticoy and attended Ventura Junior High School and Ventura City College. When the Korean War started, Simon joined the 2nd Division of the U.S. Army and became a machine gunner. It would be Uncle Simon's destiny to take part in two of the bloodiest battles of the Korean War. The "Battle of Bloody Ridge" began in August 1951 and continued up until September 12, 1951.

On August 27, 1951, Simon was hit in the neck and legs by mortar shrapnel and in the back by grenade fragments. At the same time, he was separated from his platoon. For seven days, he was behind enemy lines and disoriented by torrential rains that made his weapon inoperable. The rain did not stop until the sixth day, and on the seventh day he was able to make his way into the area of the 9th U.S. Regiment. When asked how he managed to make his way through enemy lines for seven days, 21-year-old Simon explained that "my extreme faith in God brought me through." Soon after this, Uncle Simon was able to have a three-day reunion with his brother Ray near the front lines. Raymond, who had already been in the service for six years, was a paratrooper and had been stationed about a 100 miles from Simon's position.

Soon after, Simon was once again in the thick of the fighting when his unit took part in the "Battle of Heartbreak Ridge," which lasted from September 13 to October 22, 1951. The Battles of Bloody Ridge and Heartbreak Ridge were the two bloodiest battles of the Korean War. By the time he left the service, Simon had been awarded the Silver Star, the Bronze Star, and three Purple Hearts. He also founded the Mexican-American Korean War Veterans of Ventura County and became a life member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion. Simon Melendez, the proud Korean War veteran, died at the age of 71 on June 15, 2002, surrounded by a family that adored him. Even to this day, Uncle Simon's memory remains strong with me and my family, in large part because he had a larger than life personality that endeared him to everyone.

Career Soldier (Donald Melendez)

Donald Ortega Melendez, who was born in 1936, entered the service in 1954 soon after the Korean War had ended. Like his brother Raymond, he initially joined the paratroopers. During his first stint overseas, Donald was assigned to the 9th Infantry Regiment of the 2nd Infantry division. He did three separate hitches overseas and was on service during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Uncle Donald spent 25 years in the military and achieved the rank of First Sergeant before he retired in 1979.

Continuing Service

Even since the Korean War, many members of my family have served in the American military. Luciano Ortega's daughter, Geraldine, joined the military for a long period of time. Donald's son, Daniel Melendez, followed in his father's step and served as a paratrooper from 1970 to 1982. Uncle Simon had two sons who spent a number of years in the military. And my sister, Amanda served in the military until recently.

Uncle Chevy

When he was twenty years old, my mother's brother, Eusebio Javier Melendez Basulto -- known affectionately as "Uncle Chevy" -- followed in our family's military tradition by enlisting in the U.S. Army. He served in Military Intelligence with MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) Unit 406 ASA, where he achieved the rank of Specialist, Fourth Class. Uncle Eusebio's military career lasted from 1973 to 1985, a total of 12 years, after which he became a chemist in the civilian world. Chevy was very proud of his service to his country, and considered his military service to be one of his greatest accomplishments.

My Uncle "Chevy" Javier Basulto passed away unexpectedly following a sudden illness on Tuesday, March 1, 2016 at the age of 62. His smile, unique sense of humor and dedication to family and country lives on in our hearts. This story is dedicated to my Uncle Chevy, who was one of many in my family to serve this country with distinction. The preceding paragraphs discuss in detail the strong commitment of one Mexican-American family to the defense of America. Many other Mexican-American families have similar stories that can be told.

Copyright © 2016, by Jennifer Vo and John P. Schmal. All rights under applicable law are hereby reserved.

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