Honoring Sgt. John Cortez (1923-1944)

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.


Veterans Day 2014 Recap!

The 2014 Veterans Day Celebration & Grand Re-Launch of the SS Red Oak Victory can only be described as a huge success! There was singing, local dignitaries, a fake broken campaign bottle, story time, great food, and great people!

The morning began with the JACs, a 40s style singing group, who welcomed guests to the Rigger’s Loft beginning at 10:30. The ceremony was opened at 11:00am by RMA Vice-President Jeff Wright, who welcomed all the guests and presided over the bell ringing to honor those who have passed over in 2014. The ceremony continued with George Miller’s aide Barbara Johnson presenting an American flag that flew over the Capital building in Washington DC on November 9, 2014 to mark the 70th anniversary of when construction began on the SS Red Oak Victory. Next, John Gioia offered his remarks and thanks to our country’s brave veterans.

RMA President John Ziesenhenne and George Miller Aide Barbara Johnson with American Flag  that flew over the US Capitol on 11/9/2014.
RMA President John Ziesenhenne and George Miller Aide Barbara Johnson with American Flag that flew over the US Capitol on 11/9/2014.

The RMA was so honored to have one-time crew member Robert (Bob) Di Chiara, Sr. join us from Singer Island, Florida as the highlight of the program! Bob began his career on the SS Red Oak Victory by washing pots and pans, however, he quickly decided to spend his free time on the Bridge as he was hoping to quickly be reassigned up there. He got his wish and finished his career on the ship as a 3rd class Signalman. We were honored to interview Bob at the Richmond Museum of History the day before the ceremony. You can view of clip of his interview on You Tube here (courtesy of Ms. Lana Husser). Bob spoke for about 10 minutes to an enthralled crowd and by the end of his recollections you could hear a pin drop in the room as everyone was on the edge of their seat listening to him. Bob’s stories about life aboard the ship were priceless and we are so happy he literally came across the County to share them.

Bob with sign and text
Robert Di Chiara, Sr. aboard the SS Red Oak Victory during World War II; he served aboard the ship from 1944-1946.

Many other Veteran’s oriented community organizations helped us mark the occasion as well including the Richmond Veterans Resource Center, Richmond Artist Lady Cali/Alexis Williams, Our Angels, Rosie the Riveter National Historical Park, Chevron Richmond Veterans Initiative, Richmond Convention and Visitors Bureau, and Richmond Community Foundation! Thank you to all of the community organizations that helped honor our local veterans!

Riggers Loft Veterans Day 2014
Richmond resident Lady Cali (Alexis Williams) displays her Veteran inspired art during the ceremony.

The ceremony in the Rigger’s Loft concluded with a re-enactment of the launch of the SS Red Oak Victory and the festivities were then shifted to the SS Red Oak Victory. Guests were given a carnation to throw over the side of the ship as a remembrance to those Veterans gave all to preserve our freedoms. Lunch was served and children’s story time took place after the conclusion of the ceremony.

We are very pleased the 2014 Veteran’s Day event was well covered in the local newspapers including Contra Costa Times, Radio Free Richmond, Richmond Confidential, and Richmond Standard.

Thanks to our sponsor (Chevron Richmond), all our community partners, the media, and our friends for joining us! See you next year!