Honoring our veterans: Another world - Albuquerque Journal

Honoring our veterans: Another world

Burton Platero is a WWII, Korean War and a Vietnam vet all rolled into one. Pictured is Mr. Platero standing at his home in Tohajiilee, New Mexico. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

TO’ HAJIILEE – This is a rugged land of canyons, fantastic rock formations and spread-out stretches of arid landscape. Once 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.

It’s Burton Platero’s home.

“I grew up just over the hill, about a mile from here,” said Platero, as he sits at a table in the home he shares with his daughter and son-in-law. “My family was ranchers 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 disorienting duty for a Navajo teenager accustomed to this dusty, boulder-strewn place.

“When the ship was not sailing, I was all right,” he said. “When we go out to sea, I’d get sick. Took me six months to get over (seasickness).”

But some things you don’t get over – like the Japanese planes that dropped out of the early morning sky to spill destruction on the ships of the United States and its allies.

“I don’t like to talk too much about it,” Platero says. “I’ve seen some people die.”

‘Might get 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 sibling.

He retains vivid memories of his young days here.

“Now it’s really different,” he said. “Back then we had a lot of rain. We sold hay for a dollar a bale.”

He recalls also the community rodeos of his youth.

“We had a lot of visitors from the outside – good riders from Crownpoint. I only participate in a little roping. Once in a while, I’d ride a cow.”

Platero attended a Catholic school in Santa Fe and then went to schools in Crownpoint and at Fort Wingate. He said he was in the 11th grade at Wingate, just 17, when he was drafted into the Navy.

“That was the end of my academic courses,” he said. “I was told to go in. In boot camp, we had a teacher who taught us what to expect. ‘You might get sick, or you might get hurt and you are going to have to learn English to get along.'”

Platero did know some English, but he was not comfortable with the language.

“Mostly, I served with no other Indians,” he said. “I served with (Irish-Americans and Italian-Americans). When they talked English, a lot of times I did not understand. But I got used to the guys I was working with. I got acquainted with some of the boys. I had an Italian friend who used to share the pepperoni he got from home with me.”

When those Japanese planes appeared with the dawn, the only language Platero and his shipmates needed was the incessant chatter of the ship’s guns.

WWII, Korean War and a Vietnam vet Burton Platero is pictured standing at his home in Tohajiilee, New Mexico, while holding a photo of himself when he was in the Navy during WWII. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Family reunion

Platero was a pointer on a 40 mm gun, which means he was involved in training the gun on enemy aircraft.

“The bullets were this big,” he said, spreading his hands about 18 inches. “One time a (Japanese) plane flew close by, almost hit the ship. The noise was really bad. Several of my friends on a 5-inch gun took shrapnel. I think we got a number of our enemy. We pulled some Japanese out of the ocean.”

The Fremont was involved in operations at Saipan, in the Palau Islands, Leyte Gulf and Iwo Jima, among others.

“We transported a lot of Marines,” Platero said. “A lot of them were Navajo, and they were being taught the Navajo code (used by the Code Talkers) on the ship.”

Separation from his family and culture was difficult for Platero. Unlike many other men in wartime service, he did not get letters and packages from home.

“They didn’t speak English,” he said of his family. “They could not write. The post office was a ways off.”

But then one day the Fremont and the USS Gansevoort, the destroyer on which Platero’s younger brother, Dillon, served, were at Hollandia, a port on the north coast of New Guinea, at the same time.

“I was called to the bridge and told, ‘Someone wants to see you. They are going to come over.'”

Dillon arrived at the Fremont in a small boat.

“We spent about two hours with each other,” Platero said. “We ate together. It was definitely good to see my brother.”

Driving home

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 didn’t have any money.”

He joined the Army Air Forces, which would become the U.S. Air Force in 1947, and was sent to Germany. During the operation known as the Berlin Airlift, June 1948 to May 1949, he was a crewman on an Air Force cargo plane delivering food and fuel to Allied-controlled areas of Berlin, which had been cut off from ground and water access by a Soviet blockade.

During the Korean War, he served on cargo planes flying 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, a used car, 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 stays active, going for walks and fishing for trout, catfish and muskie.

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 he did.

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