HELOTES — Seventy-eight years ago this week, Bill Lozano was aboard the battleship USS Washington, part of a vast fleet supporting the Allied invasion of Saipan.
When he wasn’t serving as a radarman, he was in the ship’s crow’s nest with other sailors, scanning the sky for Japanese Zeros, fast, nimble fighter aircraft.
Lozano, who elevates modesty to an art form, says it wasn’t all that exciting.
“I wasn’t manning a gun or anything like that,” said the retired lawyer, now 96. “I was just doing a job that had to be done on the ship, and I was lucky to be on the Washington. We were never hit by the kamikazes. They came close to us many times, but never hit us.”
Lozano was a participant in and witness to a series of critical, bloody island battles that were key to the Allied victory in the Pacific. He was there for Saipan, Tinian, Iwo Jima and Okinawa, and he served with American forces that chased what was left of the Imperial Japanese Navy into the Philippine Sea — without ever quite catching it.
Lozano’s time in the Navy — first crisscrossing the Pacific, later ferrying troops across the Atlantic — took up barely two years of a long life, like a stone’s ripple across a tranquil lake.
Today, he is a widower with failing eyesight and a sharp memory. He occasionally leaves home for breakfast with a handful of other veterans. They wear red shirts and black caps that announce the wars they served.
They even have fans — in this case, people captivated by living history.
Faith Evangeline, 22, recently paid tribute to the vets by standing up after breakfast at a Jim’s restaurant on the Northwest Side and bursting into a cappella renditions of two classic songs — “Dream A Little Dream of Me” and a wartime favorite, “Let’s Remember Pearl Harbor.”
“History in ev’ry century records an act that lives forevermore,” Evangeline sang. “We’ll recall, as into line we fall, the thing that happened on Hawaii’s shore.”
Then the chorus:
“Let’s remember Pearl Harbor as we go to meet the foe.
“Let’s remember Pearl Harbor as we did the Alamo.”
Diners stopped to take snapshots, shake hands and exchange pleasantries with Lozano and his fellow veterans, who sat together at a long row of tables.
“Thank you for your service,” several said.
‘A terrible, terrible battle’
Like a giant storm surge, a war bigger than any other in American history swept 16 million people out of civilian life and into military service. In January 1944, Lozano was 18 and fresh out of Jefferson High School and a part-time job at a Piggly Wiggly supermarket. He knew a draft notice was coming from the Army, and he joined the Navy a week before it arrived.
He went to San Diego for basic training and later made his way to Bremerton, Wash., home port of the Washington, a 35,000-ton North Carolina class, fast battleship.
The year before Lozano boarded her, the Washington sailed in the South and Central Pacific, taking part in invasions of the Gilbert Islands in November 1943 and the Marshall Islands early the following year. Her bow was damaged in a collision with the battleship USS Indiana on Feb. 1, 1944, and she had to be idled for repairs.
The Washington then went back to the Pacific, participating in the Marianas invasion in June 1944 and the Battle of the Philippine Sea.
The Battle of Saipan lasted from mid-June to July 9 of that year. A task force of 15 aircraft carriers, seven battleships, 11 cruisers, 86 destroyers and more than 900 planes — along with 127,000 troops — took the fight to the Japanese. The invasion fleet left Pearl Harbor on June 5, 1944, the day before the Allies launched the Normandy Invasion to liberate Europe from the Nazis.
In Saipan, the Allied force defeated the 43rd Infantry Division of the Imperial Japanese Army. The loss of the strategic island, with the deaths of at least 29,000 troops, left the Japanese home islands within range of U.S. B-29 bombers.
More battles followed: Tinian, Guam, the Palaus, Leyte, Luzon, Iwo Jima and Okinawa.
Lozano has vivid memories of Iwo Jima in particular.
“My battle station was on the crow’s nest, and our ship was bombarding the island, and I could see these small landing craft unloading all these Marines on the beach, and we were shooting over their heads in front of them to soften the area up,” he said.
The shelling went on for three days, he added.
“I was just lucky. I had a buddy that worked for me when I was in Piggly Wiggly. He was in one of the foxholes.
“After the war we were able to talk, and he was telling me about being in a foxhole, and I was telling him I was on the Washington… We were shooting right over his head to soften up the rock up there, make it easier for the Marines to capture the rock. It was a terrible, terrible battle because it took them a long time to do it.”
‘No big deal’
By the time the U.S. forces had taken Iwo Jima in March 1945, one in every four Americans involved had been killed or injured — 6,871 dead and 19,217 wounded. In all, 27 sailors and Marines received the Medal of Honor — 14 posthumously.
“I considered myself lucky because I had a place to take a shower. The Marines were sitting in there in the foxholes,” Lozano said. “We had regular meals in the mess halls. We had a place to take a shower and a place to sleep. I mean, it was a floating city, is what it was, because there were about 2,400 people on the Washington.”
Russell Minor, who organized the breakfast at Jim’s, pondered Lozano’s modesty.
“I don’t know why he says that, because that battleship won … 13 battle stars,” said Minor, 68, of Boerne. “He was in a lot of battles that a lot of Navy guys lost their lives, let me put it that way. Maybe since he never got a scratch, maybe that’s why he talks like that, but I notice a lot of those guys play down what they did.”
Maj. Gen. Bob Parker, a San Antonio retiree who once led the Air Force’s Space Command, said the World War II generation is “the most modest, polite generation in the world.”
He added: “You’ll find out that a couple of guys who landed at Normandy beach, they say, ‘Oh, yeah, we landed and were under fire.’”
Bob Masters, 96, of Shavano Park, is a Navy veteran who served aboard an amphibious ship that landed troops in southern France on Aug. 15, 1944, two months after Normandy. The invasion of southern France, Operation Dragoon, is sometimes called the “Second D-Day.”
“It’s no big deal,” Masters said. “We all did the same thing. Everybody who went into the service got their assigned post, and that was it.”
“It’s normal” for veterans to downplay their wartime feats, said retired Air Force Lt. Col. Ray Falke, 95, of Hollywood Park.
Falke is a Navy veteran of World War II who won a Distinguished Flying Cross for braving heavy anti-aircraft fire in North Korea. “You’re doing what they told you to do,” he said.
‘So friendly and so sharp’
Lozano returned to San Antonio in 1946 a battle-tested veteran. He earned a bachelor’s degree and then a law degree at St. Mary’s University — all on the G.I. Bill.
He no longer drives because his eyes are going bad. He has three children, one of whom lives in San Antonio and takes care of him. He goes out with his veteran pals for a couple of red shirt breakfasts every month.
“Bill’s one of my favorites, so friendly and so sharp,” said Tammy Martin, whose father, Bob Warren, now 101, dropped paratroopers into France on D-Day. “You would never guess his age.”
When Lozano talks of watching the war from his perch in the crow’s nest of the Washington, it’s as if he’s still there, high above the Pacific, as the U.S. fleet sails toward Tokyo.
“You had about four aircraft carriers in the center, you had about four battleships … around the carriers, and you had about eight or 10 cruisers around the battleships and about 15 or 18 destroyers around the cruisers,” he said. “We would be on the same course all the time, and when we had to make a turn, the whole unit would make a turn.”