STILL PAYING TRIBUTE
May 22, 2013
By Christina Corrales-Toy
World War II vet recalls the days he took to the air as an eager teen
Before Issaquah resident Lou Ortiz boarded the USS Lexington and conducted missions all around the Pacific, the World War II veteran had to fight a different battle — one with his mother.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the eager 16-year-old was determined to enlist in the U.S. Navy, despite the fact that he was underage.
“I was so upset with it that I just kept saying to my mom, ‘Mom, I want to help. You’ve got to let me join,’” he said.
Ortiz’s mother finally gave in to the unrelenting teen, reluctantly signing papers to allow the then 17-year-old to join the Navy.
“I was patriotic enough to join when I was just a young man and I still feel the same way,” Ortiz said.
Sitting comfortably in his Klahanie home, Ortiz fondly reflected on his time as an aviation gunner and radioman with the U.S. Navy during World War II.
Once enlisted, Ortiz did not hesitate for a second when asked what role he wanted to assume.
“I wanted to fly,” the now 88-year-old said in a recent interview as a grin stretched across his face and he pointed toward the sky.
After spending a significant amount of time mastering naval communication processes, including Morse code, Ortiz was sent to Long Beach, Calif., where he was paired with a pilot. Ortiz’s pilot, Robert Smith, or Smitty as he was called, manned the plane’s flight, while Ortiz, as a gunner, controlled the aircraft’s weapons and communications.
In 1944, Ortiz and his bomber squadron were assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Lexington.
“There were a lot of good guys. We were all like a family after awhile,” he said.
The squadron’s first mission was a memorable one, sending them to the island of Guam to take out enemy installations. It’s a moment that Ortiz said he will never forget, as he described with youthful exuberance how much the accomplishment of successfully completing the first assignment meant to him.
“It was kind of scary because it was our first actual battle,” he said. “We didn’t know what to expect, but by the time all of us came back, we were pros. We were patting ourselves on the back.”
During his time on the Lexington, Ortiz earned the moniker “WaterLou” because of his and his pilot’s penchant for repeatedly ending up in the water.
In one of the more memorable instances, Ortiz’s squadron participated in a strike on Chichi Jima, a small island that the Japanese relied on for communication purposes.
Ortiz’s plane was hit as it flew against a storm of anti-aircraft fire toward the island. The right wing was damaged along with the rudders, and the pilot was forced to make a landing in the water.
When the plane hit the water, Ortiz and Smith emerged from the aircraft and inflated a raft. The two hopped in, with no certainty of where they would float to, or who would find them. Ortiz was sure they would get picked up by an enemy boat, but luckily, they were found a short time later by an ally destroyer ship.
“We were really lucky,” he said. “It was a beautiful sight to see the destroyer heading right for us.”
Ortiz was injured in the fight, taking some shrapnel to the head, but the wound was superficial and he was quickly sewed up and bandaged. It did earn him a Purple Heart, though.
Nov. 5, 1944
When Ortiz was asked to talk about his experiences in front of his granddaughter’s class, he gave the students a clear message — “War is awful.”
Never was that more true for Ortiz, when on Nov. 5, 1944, his pilot, Smitty, died. It’s a moment that he rarely talks about because of the emotions that day generates.
The duo was scheduled for an early strike on a nearby island, but engine problems prevented them from going. Just a short time later, the Lexington was attacked by kamikazes. Smitty ventured to the carrier’s secondary control tower to get a good view of the action, and the structure was hit, blowing its occupants out into the water.
“If we had gone on that mission, he’d probably be alive,” Ortiz said. “I think of him all the time. He was such a nice guy. I felt when it would happen, it would be both of us at the same time.”
They never were able to recover Smith’s body.
‘Tribute to our guys’
After the war, Ortiz worked for Rockwell International as a technical artist, illustrating specifications for space shuttle parts and satellites.
In 1992, Ortiz and his wife of 61 years, Terry, moved to Klahanie, so they can be close to their grandchildren.
Memorial Day is an important time for the family. Every year, without fail, Ortiz makes sure to hang his American flag outside for the holiday.
“It really means a lot to have both of my parents here,” said Stacey Boyd, Ortiz’s daughter. “My kids understand Memorial Day and its purpose because they get firsthand knowledge hearing Grandpa’s stories.”
Memorial Day is all about paying “tribute to our guys,” such as Smith, who did not get the chance to come home, Ortiz said.
“Many of the real heroes never came back,” he said. “A lot of people don’t realize that they’re here today, living in democracy, because of those guys. We pay tribute to my friends that didn’t come back. They are all up there looking down at us.”