An Independent Spirit Guided Her Through World War II — And Beyond
When World War II started, Connie Doria Rocha was 16 and living with her mother and siblings in San Antonio.
Not long after, she found a way to join the war effort as a mechanic for the military.
It all started with an Uncle Sam sign that she'd seen at what was then known as Kelly Air Field in San Antonio. She was working there in the sheet metal department, helping her family financially instead of going to school. Rocha remembered that the signs were everywhere on base and said "Uncle Sam needs you." She'd heard that the military was accepting transfers to far-away bases.
Those signs were part of a military recruitment campaign asking civilian technicians to volunteer to go to Hawaii — which was considered a war zone until 1944 — and Rocha answered the call. At the time, women were barred from combat.
But first, she asked her mother.
"I came home one day," she said, "and I said, 'Would you let me go?' Because, in the Hispanic home, a young girl did not leave home," Rocha said at StoryCorps in 2008. "But, she says, 'Do you want to be like me at age 22 with four kids?' I said, 'No.' Then she says, 'Ah, well, then get the heck out of here.' "
When she'd started as a sheet metal mechanic at Kelly Air Field, she knew nothing about repairing airplanes.
"It was like on-the-job training. I didn't know what a wrench was, nothing," Rocha said.
She was eventually transferred to Hickam Air Field in Hawaii, where warplanes would arrive heavily damaged. She would be required to crawl into the planes to replace and repair sheet metal and plexiglass.
"You could see blood all over and the smell was horrible. I just couldn't stand it," Rocha said. "I went and told my supervisor, 'I can't do it.' And I will never forget that he told me, 'You take a deep breath and get back in there and you just do that job.' And I did."
When the war was over, she was told to go home. "And I said, 'The hell with that,' " Rocha recalled. "I already got a taste of what it's like to be an independent woman."
She did return though to San Antonio, where she met Rodolfo Cruz, a Naval officer. They married in 1947, and had five children. Cruz died in 1999.
Throughout her marriage, she maintained that strong independence. She remembered that when she and her husband were talking about where they were going to be buried, she said she didn't like a custom she'd noticed for some military burials. She told him she didn't like the idea of the wife's name appearing on the back of the headstone while the man's name was on the front.
"So I said, 'If you want to go there, you go. But, I'm not 'cause I'm not gonna be in the back of nobody's [burial marker]. I did as much as you guys did," she said.
StoryCorps' Military Voices Initiative records stories from members of the U.S. military and their families.
Audio produced for Morning Edition by Jey Born. NPR's Heidi Glenn adapted it for the web.
StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.