Juan Ortiz’s father told him a phrase before he sent his son off as a young teenager to take on New York City. It was a phrase he would take as gospel for the rest of his life — a life spent traversing the globe.
Ortiz has gone many places others would be afraid of, from the Pacific Theater in the closing days of World War II, to escorting Turkish and Greek soldiers to active war zones (knowing full well they would try and sometimes be successful in killing one another due to centuries of bad blood between the countries). He’s even ferried troops into foreign, hostile countries while being under heavy fire and having a number of close calls with mines in Korea.
“Sometimes, you have to see it to believe it,” said Ortiz of the horrors and danger he’s seen as a member of the U.S. Merchant Marine. “I thought sometimes, ‘I’m not going to see my kids.’”
But his father, before sending him off with no English skills or a high school diploma, to a foreign place that he had never been to, gave him a phrase that would benefit him in even his most dire of circumstances.”
“Never be afraid of where you go … feel like you’ve always been there.”
Ortiz was born March 27, 1929, in Puerto Rico.
Despite growing up poor in an American territory, with five brothers and five sisters, Ortiz remembers Puerto Rico fondly, because it’s the place where he found his first love: the sea.
“I made a boat when I was 8 or 9 years old,” said Ortiz.
Ortiz would use the small sailboat, to travel around the ocean freely, fishing, basking and even a little low-key smuggling.
According to Ortiz, his brother had left home to join the military, and had received a commission on a ship in Puerto Rico close to his family. This gave a poor boy with a small boat and a brother onboard a ship a small opportunity.
“(My brother) would hand sugar and coffee over the side to me,” said Ortiz, adding that the entire ship knew what was happening because they could clearly see him coming and going from the ship.
However, despite having free range of the sea with his little homemade boat, Ortiz’s parents wanted more opportunity for him. They wanted him to be in the mainland United States.
“In eighth grade, they sent me to Brooklyn, New York,” Ortiz said.
When he got to the Big Apple, living with family there, Ortiz did not speak a word of English. But the Puerto Rican boy was able to find temporary jobs or quick-paying gigs due to his growing reputation as an exceptionally hard worker, he said.
When he was 17, World War II was under way; the United States was still engaged in both the European and Pacific theaters. And, in order to win the war, his country was in need of sailors; and Ortiz was in need of work once again.
“I stood in a line looking for work,” Ortiz said, adding that he really didn’t know what line he was standing in, except that it was a line that ended with a paying job. However, when he reached his turn at the front, uniformed men told him that his birth certificate would need to be translated from Spanish to English.
He was able to get his birth certificate translated that day, but during the process, he asked them to change his birthday so that he would appear older to the men in uniform.
And they did.
With little to no English skills whatsoever, Ortiz was eventually placed on the Admiral H.T. Mayo in 1946 and was put in charge of one of the lifeboats onboard the ship. He was transferred on May 16, 1947, to the Charles A. Stafford, a hospital ship that had been in service in Atlantic between the U.S. and Britain.
It was on the Stafford that Ortiz, at the age of 18, saw the Holocaust survivors for the first time.
“We went to Germany to get the Jewish people out,” Ortiz said. “We took them to Italy, other countries, or all over the world.”
Lily Agbalog, Ortiz’s daughter, said that seeing the Holocaust survivors was a pivotal, greatly affecting moment in her father’s life.
“He saw the chambers,” she said. “He’s described the survivors as being ‘emaciated.’”
Ortiz said the ships he was deployed on, the Liberty ship class from World War II, which were designed to be transport ships, needed to accommodate more survivors than they had room for on board.
“We’d open the hatch, and they’d have made tall bunks” in order to fit everyone in, Ortiz said. “A lot of them couldn’t even walk.”
He remembers it clear as day, seeing the women and children who were shadows of who they once were. But it didn’t stop him from continuing on in the Merchant Marine, and it wouldn’t be the last ramifications of war that he would see.
In 1950, Ortiz was headed to Busan, Korea, onboard the USAT General W.M. Black AP-135.
“We could see the fire from the ship,” Ortiz said, describing the combat he saw as his ship headed down the coast of Korea.
Before he had headed out to Korea, Ortiz had married the love of his life, and she was pregnant when he was sent overseas again.
Working in three departments on board the ship — steward, engine and deck — Ortiz’s various ships in Korea were regularly shelled or shot at by the enemy. At least once, a man on the ship was killed, and his body had to be placed in “a sack” and pushed overboard.
However, that didn’t stop the primarily Spanish speaker from completing his work.
When working as a waiter for the officers, he would hand them a menu. “If they wanted three orders or something, they’d put three marks next to the item. If they wanted more, I’d put more marks.”
He said that, although he was an enlisted man, and not an officer like them, everyone respected or at least liked him because he worked hard.
“I never complained,” he said.
However, for one of his duties that he was given, he might’ve wished he had not done it because it’s haunted him still to this day.
“We took the bodies back and forth,” said Ortiz, saying that memory of all those bodies was still fresh in his mind. “When you see that, you feel it.”
After the service
In June 1955, Ortiz would leave the Merchant Marine with an honorable discharge, and return home to his wife and five kids for good.
He said he had seen much of the world, from various countries in the Pacific, to both coasts of the United States. From Australia to Germany, Italy to England, Turkey to Korea, Ortiz ventured close to every part of the globe.
He went on to have a variety of jobs, working in shipyards and factories, eventually leaving the Chicago area for Southern California.
Now, at the age of 90 and having been married for 71 years, Ortiz says he’s glad for his father’s advice to never be afraid. He says he’s proud of what he’s done with both his time in the Merchant Marine and with his family, and that wouldn’t have been possible without his ability to go to new places and not fear what awaited him there.
As he had grown older, what haunts him still, though, and what makes him afraid, is Korea and the dead bodies he had to move in and out of a freezer.
“I still have nightmares,” he says, showing fear for the first time with his wife and daughter nodding their heads, concurring.