By John Philip Wyllie
Thousands of Southern California history and aviation enthusiasts braved record temperatures to attend El Cajon’s 10th Annual Wings Over Gillespie Air Show last weekend. The three-day event provided show-goers a chance to see and in some cases to ride in some of the nearly three dozen vintage military airplanes on display. In addition, a wide variety of military collectibles were available for a price. Rows of tables offered everything from ace autographs to Zero replicas. Perhaps more importantly, the event provided history buffs a rare opportunity share in the experiences of people whose actions have been chronicled in a plethora of books and magazines.
81-year old Reynaldo Gallardo, one of the last remaining “Aztec Eagle” pilots from Mexico’s WWII Escuadron 201 was back again, making his second show appearance. He was joined by a dwindling number of fellow WWII pilots as well as others from the Korean and Vietnam Wars. Marine Reserve Lance Corporal Alex Torres, recently returned from the fighting in Iraq, was one of the youngest. While nearly 60 years separated their service, neither man had any regrets about answering the call to duty or in fighting for what they believed.
Gallardo saw action over Japanese-occupied Formosa late in the war striking bridges oil depots, ships and ground forces while flying a P-47 Thunderbolt. He was wounded in action. Torres saw his war from the inside of an amphibious armored LAV-25 assault vehicle. He took part in the invasion of Iraq and was there until September.
“We are hoping not to go back, but we think that we will. So, all we can do is train and be ready,” Torres said after giving some kids a guided tour of his vehicle. For him, the air show was an opportunity to show civilians the human faces behind the uniforms worn by the military.
“A lot of times the media misrepresents what we do. An event like this shows the other side of the military. Our unit does parades and things like this all the time. We are also very involved in the community doing things like Toys for Tots and other community activities.” For Torres, the air show was a time to interact with fellow Marines and servicemen from previous wars.
“We like to exchange stories and talk about the equipment they used compared to what we have now. It helps you to see things in a different light,” Torres added. Despite his recent involvement in what has become a growlingly unpopular war, Torres has retained a gung ho attitude.
“Coming out of boot camp and becoming a Marine is about the greatest source of pride that a person can have,” Torres said. “You can see the vets here from World War II and Vietnam still wearing their Marine hats with pride. That pride is something they will take with them to their graves.”
For the past eight years, Gallardo has spoken at schools and to various community groups about the often overlooked Escuadron 201 and his role in it. Donning his vintage Mexican pilot’s uniform for this occasion, he cheerily chatted with aviation enthusiasts and patiently answered their many questions. While speaking to La Prensa, he alluded to the current conflict and spoke about a soldier’s sense of duty to carry out missions even when he questions the wisdom of those missions.
“We should be very careful in who we select to govern the United States, the greatest country on earth,” Gallardo cautioned.
“I’ve lived a terrible experience and I’ve learned a lot. This knowledge and experience will go to waste if I don’t share it.” Encouraged by his wife, Gallardo has become a popular guest speaker.
“I’ve traveled all over the country and I no longer simply speak just at schools. The (Austin, Texas) Hispanic Chamber of Commerce also keeps me very busy. Now I have to plan my commitments.”