Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
TO’ HAJIILEE – This is a rugged land of canyons, fantastical rock formations and vast expanses of arid landscape. Formerly known as the Canoncito Indian Reservation, it is about 32 miles west of Albuquerque and 6 miles north of I-40. It is home to the To’hajiilee Chapter of the Navajo Nation.
This is the home of Burton Platero.
“I grew up just over the hill, about a mile from here,” Platero said, sitting at a table in the house he shares with his daughter and son-in-law. “My family was made up of herders and farmers. We had cattle, sheep, goats and horses. We grew corn, melons and hay.
Platero, 98, is a Navy veteran of World War II and an Air Force veteran of the Korean War.
During World War II he served in the South Pacific aboard the attack transport ship USS Fremont. It was a disorienting assignment for a Navajo teenager accustomed to this dusty, rock-strewn place.
“When the boat wasn’t sailing, I was fine,” he said. “When we go to sea, I get sick. It took me six months to recover (seasickness).
But some things you can’t get over – like the Japanese planes that fell from the sky early in the morning to wreak havoc on the ships of the United States and its allies.
“I don’t like talking about it too much,” says Platero. “I saw people die.
‘Can be hurt’
Platero, born in August 1924, grew up in a family in which he had three brothers and four sisters. He is the only surviving brother.
He has vivid memories of his youth here.
“Now it’s really different,” he said. “At the time, we had a lot of rain. We were selling hay for a dollar a bale.
He also remembers community rodeos from his youth.
“We had a lot of out-of-towners – good riders from Crownpoint. I only participate in a little stringing. Once in a while, I rode a cow.
Platero attended a Catholic school in Santa Fe, then went to schools in Crownpoint and Fort Wingate. He said he was in grade 11 at Wingate, just 17, when he was drafted into the navy.
“It was the end of my university classes,” he said. “I was told to come in. In boot camp, we had a teacher who taught us what to expect. “You could get sick, or you could hurt yourself and you’re going to have to learn English to get by.”
Platero knew a little English, but he was not comfortable with the language.
“Most of the time I didn’t serve with any other Indians,” he said. “I served with (Irish-Americans and Italian-Americans). When they spoke English, I often didn’t understand. But I got used to the guys I worked with. I got to know some boys I had an Italian friend who shared with me the pepperoni he got from his house.
When these Japanese planes appeared at dawn, the only language Platero and his shipmates needed was the incessant chatter of the ship’s guns.
Platero was a pointer on a 40 mm gun, which means he was involved in training the gun on enemy aircraft.
“The bullets were so big,” he said, spreading his hands about 18 inches apart. “Once a (Japanese) plane flew nearby, almost hit the ship. The noise was really bad. Several of my friends on a 5 inch gun took shrapnel. I think we have a number of our enemies. We pulled Japanese people out of the ocean.
The Fremont has been involved in operations in Saipan, the Palau Islands, Leyte Gulf and Iwo Jima, among others.
“We carried a lot of Marines,” Platero said. “Many of them were Navajo, and they were taught the Navajo code (used by Code Talkers) on the ship.”
The separation from his family and his culture was difficult for Platero. Unlike many other men on wartime duty, he did not receive letters and packages from home.
“They didn’t speak English,” he said of his family. “They couldn’t write. The post office was far away.
But one day, the Fremont and the USS Gansevoort, the destroyer on which Platero’s younger brother Dillon served, were in Hollandia, a port on the northern coast of New Guinea, at the same time.
“I was called to the bridge and said, ‘Somebody wants to see you. They’re coming.'”
Dillon arrived at Fremont in a small boat.
“We spent about two hours together,” Platero said. “We ate together. It was definitely good to see my brother.
Both brothers survived the war.
“I got out of the Navy and went to school at the Haskell Institute (now Haskell Indian Nations University) in Kansas,” he said. “They put me in as a junior. But I didn’t graduate. And I had no money.
He joined the Army Air Forces, which would become the US Air Force in 1947, and was sent to Germany. During the operation known as the Berlin Airlift, from June 1948 to May 1949, he was a crew member of an Air Force cargo plane delivering food and fuel to areas controlled by the Allies of Berlin, which had been cut off from access to land and water by a Soviet. blockade.
During the Korean War, he served on cargo planes carrying food to people on the Korean coast. He left the Air Force with the rank of Staff Sergeant in 1952.
“I got a car in San Francisco,” he said. “I got a good deal. I drove that car, I think it was a Ford, used car, back home.
Back home, Platero worked in sanitation for the Public Health Service and also in community health for the Navajo Tribe.
He retired in 1990, but remains active, cruising and fishing for trout, catfish and muskellunge.
There are things about his time in the military, especially during World War II, that he prefers not to remember. But he never forgets that he served and remains proud of having done so.