Noriega, 82, of Newhall and his seven siblings grew up in East L.A. His father, James Noriega, came from Mexico to the United States with a resident visa in 1918 and then he and wife, Mercedes, moved to Los Angeles in 1921.
James became a proud citizen of the United States in 1942 and Mercedes followed in 1959.
“We were Americans of Mexican descent,” Bert Noriega said.
Less than a year before his father became a citizen, the United States entered World War II – and so did the Noriega family.
Noriega’s three brothers, his uncles and four cousins all volunteered to serve.
“The war was against America – we were all patriotic,” Noriega said.
Brothers Willy and Bobby served in WWII in the Navy. Brother Art served in the Army Air Corps and was on the Pacific Island of Tinian in 1945 when the first atomic bomb was delivered to be dropped on Japan.
Though he didn’t serve in the armed forced, Noriega’s father contributed to the war effort working for Willys-Overland making Jeeps during WWII.
“My mother was proud that she had three stars hanging in the window,” Noriega remembered. “Every night my mother would pray for all of them to return safely and they did.”
Noriega’s father was the family’s only casualty during WWII; he died of a heart attack in February 1944. Noriega credits the Red Cross for helping his family during that time.
“They flew my brothers home from the Pacific for the funeral,” he said. “With the war going on and all, I don’t know how they did it.”
Later, Noriega’s brother Rudy wanted to go into combat during the Korean War but instead he was stationed in Nome, Alaska, and trained with the ski patrol.
Noriega volunteered for the draft and went into the Army in 1954. Bert’s son, Thomas, served in the Coast Guard from 1984-1988. That makes Noriega just one of 11 members of his family to serve in the military between WWII and 1988.
Noriega is considered a Korean War-era veteran, serving in the U.S. Army from 1954-1956, which was after the Korean War had ended.
“I looked up to my big brothers and wanted to serve too,” he said.
Noriega was trained as a mechanic/gunner on an anti-aircraft gun which was one of seven artillery pieces guarding the skies over the strategic Panama Canal. He lived in a tent in the jungle for 18 months with his 15-man gun crew.
“I remember how happy we were when the Army Corps of Engineers showed up and blew a big hole in the ground for our latrine,” Noriega said.
He remembers playing with monkeys and iguanas for fun – but some animals weren’t as friendly.
“One day I killed a nine-foot boa constrictor coiled up under a tarp on the pedestal of our gun,” he said.
Noriega’s anti-aircraft gun’s location was so remote that the gunners had to have their meals trucked in to them daily.
“We did get hamburgers from the locals.” Noriega said. “They mixed the meat from the tails of iguanas with hamburger – it tasted good but it was kind of rubbery.”
After he completed his service, Noriega returned to the job he’d held before swearing in at Hodge Sheet Metal in Los Angeles, a job he’d held since he was right out of high school.
“The government held jobs open for servicemen back then.”
Noriega retired 35 years later from the sheet metal industry.
He moved to Newhall five years ago and made sure he had room for cars and his tools. He got the car bug from his mechanic father and passed it on to his son, Thomas.
“All my brothers were mechanics, too , even better than me,” he said. “These new cars are all computers – you can’t work on them.”
Noriega said he’s always been a Ford man.
“I drove a 1941 Ford in high school,” he said as he counted off six other Ford cars and trucks that he has owned. Today, his “ride” is a 50th Anniversary Ford Mustang GT with 435 horsepower painted Impact Blue.
This summer he displayed his car at the Mustang-themed Revved Up event on Main Street in Newhall.
“I love speed,” he said. “I blow it out on the (Highway) 14 freeway when there is no traffic around.”