Hispanic Flyboys

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Narrator: There was no more dangerous a job during World War II than flying bombing missions over enemy territory. 185 Arizona Hispanics served as pilots, co-pilots, bombardiers, gunners, and radio operators. One such pilot was mesa resident Gilbert Orrantia. Orrantia flew 50 missions in B-25s in 1942, then returned stateside to become a combat flight instructor. Orrantia was born in 1917 in Clarkdale and graduated from Clarkdale High School in 1936. He attended what was then known as Arizona State Teachers College in Tempe for two years. Orrantia met all the requirements to become a pilot and was undergoing psychological testing when the doctor asked him about his nationality.

Gilbert Orrantia: "You're a Mexican, aren't you?"

Orrantia: "Yes, I am."

Orrantia: He says, "Well, you're going to have a hard time." Well, my reply to that was very simply, "look, if I have passed all the examinations, you put your signature on that piece of paper, and I'll take my chances with the best you got. And if I can't cut the mustard, I don't deserve to be a pilot." He says, "Well, if that's the way you want it." I said, "That's the only way I want it."

Narrator: Orrantia rose to the rank of Second Lieutenant. His first mission was in Northern Africa as a co-pilot.

Orrantia: As we're going over the field, all this flak is bursting around us, and we're jumping all over the sky. I look over to the left, and they hit a ship, and it was one of my buddies that -- we had been all the way through together, and they blew that ship apart. But you know, they all got out. They all got out.

Narrator: At 86, Orrantia is still able to climb into the cockpit of a restored B-25 at Mesa's Commemorative Air Force Museum.

Orrantia: You had to learn - learn these by heart. They'd blindfold you, and you'd say, "Well, this is the compass, and this is -- you know, this is the flight indicator." You'd have to touch it and tell them what it was.

Narrator: One of Orrantia's most harrowing experiences came on a low-altitude bombing mission. His job was to fly 200 feet above the ocean and skip bombs on the water like a stone into an enemy ship.

Orrantia: I remember we were so low that my tail gunner would say, "Lieutenant, dip the tail and I'll get us some fish for lunch or supper."

Narrator: During that mission, enemy fire tore into his aircraft, blowing away part of its tail.

Orrantia: Took the co-pilot and myself -- all our strength to move that and hold it there. So we're holding it, and we get to an airfield that was a little English airfield called Bonn. So we landed there. Pretty soon, here come the British in the jeep. They look at the -- look up at the rudder, and it's all blown to heck. We all got down and looked at it, and they went around the plane and looked at it, and they says, "Blimey, how'd you blokes get that aircraft on the ground?"

Orrantia: I said, "well, don't know, but there it is."

Narrator: There were other frightening moments for Orrantia during his 50 missions, like a belly landing when his front nose gear would not deploy, or the time his plane's windshield was shattered. After the war, Orrantia worked as a community activist and a Professor of Foreign Languages at Mesa Community College. It's been over 50 years since the Hispanic Flyboys of World War II took to the skies, but like those for whom they fought, the Flyboys will not soon forget it.

Orrantia: It was a wonderful experience. I wouldn't give it up for anything in the world, and I loved flying them. But I didn't particularly care for people shooting at me and stuff, but that comes with the territory.