World War II radar man visits Normandy scholars as guest speaker
Posted: March 5, 2007
Recently Navy veteran and San Antonio native Delmiro Isidro Elizondo visited the campus to talk to the Normandy scholars. Elizondo told them that in 1943 he had signed up to be a pilot in the Air Force, since he loved flying and already had his pilot's license. But unbeknownst to him, there were already too many pilots, so he was assigned to the Navy. He went to California for boot camp and, on the strength of aptitude tests he had taken, was informed that he had been assigned to learn a new and very secret electromagnetic detection system: radar.
Boot camp was in Point Loma, California, but he and the other men selected for the intensive training in radar rarely saw any of it. Every day they were transported in buses, with all the windows covered, to an advance radar station to learn how to detect if any ships or planes were coming towards the U.S.
After his training, he was sent cross-country to Philadelphia by train. Upon his arrival, he was met by Military Police who asked him for his papers. They told him to come with them and with lights flashing and driving 50-60 mph through the streets, delivered him to the USS Catoctin which was waiting for him. It was only then that Elizondo was sure he wasn't going to jail.
As he boarded the ship, the Officer of the Day, shouted, "Where have you been? We’ve been waiting for you for six hours!" He had no idea what was happening. He was the only Mexican American on the ship of more than 900 men. And since no one could pronounce his name, "Delmiro Elizondo", he was immediately nicknamed "Chico."
He was promptly sent to the Combat Information Center (CIC), where all of the radar controls and monitors were located. The CIC was one of only three locations on the ship that was air-conditioned. Temperatures on the ship could reach 120 degrees Fahrenheit.
He ended up being the top radar man on the USS Catoctin, the flagship of the U.S. Eighth Fleet, operating in the Mediterranean Sea under the command of Admiral H. Kent Hewitt. The ship was launched in January 1943 and was equipped with radio and radar. It had been built in 90 days, one of many such "90-day wonders." Eighty-five percent of the Navy’s fleet had been destroyed by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.
Before completing the two-week trip across the Atlantic to the Mediterranean Sea, Elizondo was promoted to be the top man responsible for running the CIC. Four officers and 12 seamen with radar training operated under his supervision. They each worked four-hour shifts, then eight hours off, through the 24 hours of each day.
The sensitivity, importance, and impact of radar operations affecting the entire U.S. Eighth Fleet cannot be overstated. His job as a radar man was to track everything from enemy ships, planes, mines, frogmen, and other possible threats, to planning land missions for the crew.
Elizondo said that Admiral Hewitt was keenly interested in radar and would visit the CIC several times a day to sit and talk to the radar men. One evening, they intercepted a German message indicating that the USS Catochin was the intended target of a U-boat pursuit. So they made a huge detour in their route to the Mediterranean. He told the scholars about the time General Patton visited the ship and everyone had to suddenly hit the deck when enemy planes appeared out of nowhere. Other distinguished persons visited the ship at various times, including King George VI of England.
There were routine inspections by the captain every Saturday. After a few months at sea, the men would let their beards grow. The Admiral, who conducted an inspection every month, decided to have a 90-day beard-growing contest, after which everyone would have to go back to shaving their beards. After the 90 days, the Admiral inspected all the men’s beards. When he came to Elizondo, who had black hair, a red mustache, and a blond beard, he pulled on his beard several times, saying, "No dyed beards!" Wincing, Elizondo told him he had not dyed his beard or mustache, that what he had sprouted was the real thing. Thereupon the Admiral ordered that a photo be taken of the Mexican with the black hair, blond beard, and red mustache, because his wife would never believe him if he told her this. Elizondo said, "Make that two!" And the Admiral did give him one of the photographs. He won second prize for his beard, consisting of $5 worth of merchandise at the PX; in those days, one could buy a whole carton of cigarettes for only 50 cents.
Elizondo told the story of his four-month stay on board the USS Catoctin during the Russian winter on the Crimean peninsula, in the Black Sea, preparing for the Big Three Yalta Conference of February, 1945. This was six months before the U.S. dropped the atomic bombs on Japan. The Big Three were the leaders of the major countries that formed the Allied Powers: Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Joseph Stalin. While at Yalta, FDR stayed in the Admiral’s quarters on board the USS Catoctin. In preparation for President Roosevelt’s visit, the ship had been outfitted in Naples. Steel ramps were installed on its upper decks to enable the President to be moved in his wheelchair. The decoy plane that flew in with the President’s plane was actually shot down.
The USS Catoctin briefly served during Operation Overlord off the Normandy coast in June 1944 and, after the conclusion of the European war, in the Pacific theater under the command of Admiral Daniel E. Barbey. Elizondo was discharged on January 10, 1946 as a Radar Man First Class.
Photo of Mr. Elizondo by M.G. Moore, photo of USS Catoctin from USN Archives