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DOWNEY – Longtime Downey resident and WWII Air Force veteran Santos Ortega worked all of 40 years here in Downey for North American Aviation (later to become Rockwell International) after serving nearly four years in the military, but it was his tour of duty in the latter that stirs up powerful emotions and vivid recollections instead of his long and colorful career at Rockwell.
He is not alone in this: the eyes of many a war veteran light up when they recall the uncommon dangers they faced in the heat of battle, or during a dangerous mission where courage would overwhelm feelings of fear, or even when they’d achieved head-turning success later in civilian life, they’d rather talk about friendships forged with old comrades.
Thus it is with Ortega, who mustered out in 1945 as a Tech Sergeant, after completing 31 missions over Europe that included participation in the Ardennes, Rhineland and Central Europe campaigns. His roles during the war included radio operator/mechanic/gunner in the 458th Bombardment Group with the 8th Air Force, based in Horsham St. Faith, England.
He had his first exposure to the winds of war when their troopship bound for England, “USS Gen. Black,” was threatened by German U-boats in the Atlantic, so they zigzagged their way for 13 days and nights towards the Cliffs of Dover, under escort by U.S. Navy destroyers.
Ortega had received intensive training in air-to-air gunnery, radio operations, and close formation combat training aboard B-24 bombers at various U.S. bases prior to being shipped overseas.
At one time early on, he had qualified as an air cadet and was awaiting further instructions but an unexpected assignment here and an unexpected development there killed his chances at flying school, together with 6,000 potential air cadets.
Ortega tells of narrow escapes and close calls when narrating his part in the war. It was not unusual, he says, that their plane’s engines and propellers would suffer damage from enemy anti-aircraft fire, while shells exploded nearby and rocked the plane even as deadly shrapnel zipped by and punctured holes in the plane. The ‘swift and tricky’ Luftwaffe fighters liked to wait for stragglers to make their kill, he says. They didn’t dare fly close to a bomber formation, however, what with the bombers armed with ten 50-caliber machine guns each.
“Several times our plane named “Hook ‘em Cow” was hit with flak, lost an engine and left the formation,” he recalls. “We would lose altitude and we would head back home. Once we were escorted by six of our P-51 fighters-three on either side of our bomber. Our fighters and the German fighters spoiling for a fight–it was a sight to behold.”
“At another time our plane was crippled by enemy fire and we had to jettison our heaviest objects-guns and all-into the English Channel, to reduce our weight,” he goes on. “We were flying on just two engines, with the third one sputtering, and we barely cleared the cliffs (of Dover).”
“During another trip,” he adds, “bad weather caused the entire mission to abort. In such cases, orders were to land, fully loaded, at previously designated British airfields. We learned later when we landed at ‘our home away from home, at least for one night’ that our ‘host’ airfield charged ‘visitors’ $50 for a plane landing, plus the likely possibility that their beddings contained “scabby” bugs. In any case, those infected were cured by infirmary medics at our home base by applying three layers of sulfa salve and the use of three pairs of long johns several hours apart, with showers in between.”
There was another bomb run, he says, and they were flying at 30,000 ft., and it was five minutes prior to target strike, when the pilot’s (Capt. Bob Fletcher) oxygen tank was punctured by flak, and there was no one to succor him. “My radio equipment and seat were just behind the co-pilot’s station. Quickly aware of the dire situation, I somehow ripped an auxiliary oxygen bottle off the nearby bulkhead, connected it to his mask and shortly after the captain was back to normal. Later the maintenance people on land reported a used bottle and a broken strap at their normally stowed location.”
Back home from the war, Ortega attended radio broadcasting schools in Hollywood, under the G.I. bill, after working in L.A. at Spartan Wholesale Grocers. Thus he would for a time work in radio broadcasting in Arizona.
His career at NAA/Rockwell-as technician, technical-representative engineer and aerospace supervisor–had many notable highlights. Ortega began his long career with North American Aviation in 1948 as a technician in Electrical & Radio Installations and Checkout, in the production of T-6 and T-28 airplanes.
Multi-lingual (English, Spanish and Portuguese), he was at one period put in charge of NAA offices overseas that interfaced with the air forces of Venezuela, Equador, Panama, Peru, and Portugal. He would also spend two years as a methods analyst assigned to the Minuteman program at Autonetics in Anaheim, handling site engineering changes for the management division. It was while working here that Ortega authored an engineering manual (EM-7413), in response to an Air Force requirement of depicting and identifying “time-significant items of hardware and configurations of equipment” designed and manufactured by Autonetics’ three product divisions-Inertial Navigation, Flight Control, and Ground Equipment.
In 1963, he was back in Downey, this time to work on the Apollo program. He was assigned to the “configuration control group” analyzing and checking engineering orders for all the design groups.
Then it was on to the Seal Beach facility, where Ortega set up a checking group to enforce the ‘drawing requirements manual’ procedures on production programs such as the flight support system, the so-called ‘teal ruby’, and global positioning systems.
In 1982, just prior to Shuttle Flight STS-3 on March 22, 1982, Ortega returned to the Downey facility for the third time, to join the newly-formed Level 11 STS configuration drawings group.
A few out-of-the-ordinary highlights of his career with NAA/Rockwell, he says, included getting to meet and shake hands with the then Secretary of State John Foster Dulles while he was stationed in Peru; convincing a Mexican Air Force general to buy the entire inventory of twelve obsolete T-28 trainers (instead of the planned five) at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base (the so-called ‘airplane graveyard’) in Tucson, Arizona, after a brief explanation of the many “built-in advantages of the planes’ interchangeable parts.”
Ortega has owned a home in Downey since 1948. An only child, the 93-year old WWII veteran says he sired three children with his wife Maxine, who died in 2003: he has six grandchildren, two great grandchildren, and two great great grandchildren, and he says: “I’ve never had an operation, and I’m in good health generally, and I still enjoy a laugh or two. So I really can’t complain.”
Published: May 24, 2012 – Volume 11 – Issue 06