Remembering Sgt. John Cortez on Dia de Muertos & Veterans Day

The Museum is honoring former Richmond resident Sgt. John Cisneros Cortez this year for Dia de Muertos and Veterans Day. We chose to honor John because he is one of a handful of Mexican Americans from Richmond that served in World War II. Over the last several years we have used Dia de Muertos as an opportunity to raise awareness about the history of the local Mexican community by creating an ofrenda for a Latino historical figure. A cousin of John Cortez brought us his story earlier in the year and we knew immediately that we needed to share it.

John was born on October 26, 1923 in San Francisco to Jose and Maria Cortez. His father Jose left his home in Morelos, Mexico at 14 years old and entered the United States at El Paso, Texas. Jose made his way to San Francisco where he was worked as a laborer and a fisherman. During World War I, Jose served in the 41st Transportation Company and he was honorably discharged in June 1919. In 1922, Jose and Maria were married. John was born in 1923. They moved to Richmond shortly after and had another son in 1925. Jose applied to be a United States citizen in 1926.

Jose Cortez Petition for Naturalization

John graduated from Richmond Union High School about 1941 and after high school went to work with his Uncle Andrez at Filice & Perelli Canning Company.

John Cisneros Cortez (ca. 1941)

John signed up for selective service in 1942 boldly writing in “Mexican” as race on his draft card. John enlisted in the United States Army Air Corps in February 4, 1943.  John was assigned to the 551st Bomb Squadron, 385th Bomber Group, trained as a radio operator and stationed at RAF Great Ashfield in Suffolk England. 

John survived his first mission on February 3, 1944, targeting Brunswick an important port city in Germany where the deadly German U-boats were berthed. John would not be so fortunate on his second mission to France. On February 13, 1944, John was flying over Calais France in a B17 Bomber nicknamed “Dragon Lady” when his plane was shot by enemy fire. The engines failed one by one as they continued over the English Channel.

Boeing B17 Fortress Bomber with nose art “Dragon Lady”

Heroically, John continued to make distress calls as the plane went down with no regard for his own safety. John was still making distress calls when the air craft crashed into the open water and sunk in the English Channel. John assisted the wounded to escape only to sink with the plane and he was killed in action. John’s unselfish and gallant actions saved the lives of four crew members who were quickly rescued from the water.

551st Bomb Squadron, 385th Bomb Squadron, Heavy

John is memorialized in the Cambridge American Cemetery in Cambridge England. The extended Cortez family continue to live and work in Richmond, California.