By JOE HUANTE
As told to Chace Anderson
I think I know Sonora and the people here as well as anybody. I’ve been here all my life. Well, almost all my life. I was born in Mexico in 1923, but my parents came to the States when I was just a baby.
First we went to Colorado, where my dad picked beets, and then we came to Sonora. I know my brother Fred-now he was a mean kid-was born in Colorado, and my youngest brother Frank-he was a good little kid-was born in Sonora. My mom died in 1928, so all that happened by the time I was five. But I only know Sonora. It’s my home.
When I think about growing up in this area, I think about my dad working for the Sardellas down at the lime quarry. He never missed a day of work there in 39 years. Dad broke rock with a sledgehammer, kind of like he was in prison, poor devil. I worked alongside him when I was in high school. Other guys went to dances; I went to work breaking rock.
I worked a lot of places growing up; everybody was poor and everybody worked. I’d go down to Mallard’s Grocery and get an orange, maybe steal a banana. Frank Mallard was a good man. We might have starved to death without him. Sometimes he’d have groceries to deliver, and he might give me a little job to deliver them.
Then I delivered soup for Bisordi’s. Mrs. Bisordi was a hell of a cook and would make soup in her boarding house, the place that’s The Gunn House today. People could pay 25 or 35 cents and get their pot filled up. Sometimes they’d want it delivered.
I learned to drive while delivering water for Bill Hassett. He had a well off Columbia Way and sold water in glass five-gallon bottles. Heavy buggers. He had a Chevrolet truck, and that’s the first thing I ever drove.
When I was a kid I played all the sports: football, basketball, track. We all did. You know, just last year they put me in the Sonora High Sports Hall of Fame … Class of 1942.
One day at a track meet at Hughson they had a 5-minute miler. That was a hell of a fast time in those days. Bob Garaventi and I were our milers, and I remember thinking to myself that I was going to run against a 5-minute miler!
It was so hot that day I decided I would just dog the fast guy, stay right on his butt as long as I could. After a couple laps, BOOM, he falls down and is out like a light. I figured it was heat stroke.
I keep going and pretty soon I realize I’m going to beat a 5-minute miler! I head for the home stretch, and I hear everybody yelling and hollering and clapping. I figure they’re yelling because I’m winning.
But no. Here he comes. That son of a bitch had jumped up and started running again. He was quickly gaining on me, and I didn’t even know it. Well, he raced across the finish line and just beat me. What a hell of a thing. That was my biggest day in track.
Boxing came naturally to me. I could whip anybody in high school. Everybody will tell you that.
Vernon Dunlavy, the principal at Sonora High, comes to me one day and says, “If you want to fight so much, why don’t you fight in the smoker down at Memorial Hall?”
I called him Skipper. I said to him, “Skipper, who am I going to fight?” Well he set up a fight for me against a guy named Elmer Burgess. He was 6’3 and weighed about 250. I’m 5’10 and 165 soaking wet.
I have Jackie Dambacher and Johnny Sardella as my seconds. Well Elmer came out and hit me right in the ear and damn near knocked me out. Coach Fiorini from the high school asked me if I wanted him to stop it. I said “Hell no,” and asked him how many rounds the fight was. He told me it was three.
In the second round I punched Burgess in the nose, broke it I’m sure, and he went down. Fiorini asked if he should stop it, and I said, “You better stop it or I’m going to goddamn kill the guy.”
I fought in Modesto, Stockton, Reno. A lot of times I’d fight boys from the CCC’s. A guy from Oakland wanted to manage me, but he said I’d have to live in Oakland, and I knew I didn’t want that.
Locally I had some fights at the El Nido. It was up where Sonora Joe’s is today, and they had this old building out back where they had fights. Frank Cavalieri was the promoter, and I remember he said he’d give me $2.50 to fight this big Japanese kid from Stockton. Biggest Japanese kid I’d ever seen.
Well I beat him, and Frank only gave me $1.50. I always kidded Frank that he owed me another buck for that fight. Kidded him all his life.
As it turned out, somebody from Oakdale took a picture of me before a fight and claimed I was a professional. It made me ineligible for sports my senior year in high school. Hell, the most I ever made on a fight was $18.
I almost didn’t get a diploma from Sonora High. You see, I was down a few credits at the end of my senior year. Mr. Dunlavy told me he was going to let me go through the ceremony, but I would have to come back to school for two weeks in the summer before he’d give me my diploma.
After one week of summer school, he caught me flying paper airplanes out the window of a second-floor room in the old administration building and wasn’t too happy. “Joe, the only way I’m going to give you a diploma is if you read this book in the next week.”
I told him, “Skipper, I’ve never read a whole book in my life. I can’t read this book in a week.”
He asked me what I did read, and I told him the Green Sheet in the Chronicle. He kind of smiled and asked me what I planned to do with my life.
Thinking on my feet, I told him I planned to join the service and fight for my country. I guess that impressed him, because he ended up giving me my diploma. Skipper was one a hell of a man.
Joining the Service… Twice
I was still a senior in high school when Pearl Harbor was bombed, and of course all of us guys wanted to go out and kill the bastards who did it.
I remember going to San Francisco with Punny Dambacher and Billy Blackburn to join the Marines.
When I walked into the place, a Marine officer said to me, “I’m going to make a man out of you.”
That made me mad, so I said, “You’re going to make a man out of me? Let’s take this out on Market Street, and I’ll show you who’s a man.” He didn’t follow me, so I thought to myself, he can shove his Marines up his keister.
Punny and Billy signed up, and it wasn’t until much later when they left for basic training that they found out I never signed the papers on that trip to San Francisco.
So I didn’t go in the service right away. After high school I worked first in the shipyards in Richmond and then the Navy yards in Oakland. On a day off from the Navy yards in 1943, I came home to Sonora and ran into Lloyd Null.
He told me he was getting ashamed to walk down the street in Sonora because everybody had gone in the service. I told him I heard that Bumpy Rodriguez and Chet Harden were going in with the next batch. I said we should go down to see Mary Sardella at the draft board and sign up with those guys.
Well, the Lunchette Bar was right there, so we went in for a couple belts. Ben Reed was tending bar, and he would serve anybody who could walk. In those days if you had money, you got served.
We had three or four and got to be feeling pretty good, and here comes Bumpy and Chet. We told them we wanted to sign up with them, and that’s what we did.
They called us “The Four Who Went to War.” A while back the paper did a little story on us. I still have the clipping. Chet and Lloyd went in the air corps. Bumpy and I were pretty good at the dots and dashes, so they put us in the signal corps.
Later Bumpy became a bombardier. I remember when he and I left for Texas, his father took me aside and said, “Joe, do me a favor. Take care of Bumpy.”
I said, “Tony, I’ll do whatever I can, but who the hell is going to take care of me?”
Basic Training in Texas
I had been inducted at the Presidio in Monterey, and it was April of 1943 when Bumpy and I took the train all the way to Camp Swift in Texas for basic training.
The camp was near Bastrop, Texas, maybe 25 miles from Austin. The camp looked pretty nice as we rolled in; green lawns and everything. But the truck we were in just kept rolling, all the way out to a godforsaken windswept area called “Wake Island.”
That’s where I became part of the 302nd Signal Operation Battalion. Eventually my job was to help run all the telephones for the 302nd. You know, I could have had a hell of a job with the phone company after the war, but I wasn’t a U.S. citizen. That’s another story.
General Patton was at Camp Swift for a time when I was there. I think he only had two stars then. One time I got a cactus spine stuck in my elbow while in training, and it got infected. They put me in the hospital, and one day we’re told General Patton’s coming in to see us.
They tell me to try to lie at attention when he comes! I’m in a hospital, and they want me to lie at attention? How the hell am I going to do that?
I saw Patton all the time-I think he was nuts, but he was a hell of a general. My general was Omar Bradley. He was in Texas then too … a real gentleman. Later in Europe Bradley would say, “We’re going to take the town with as few casualties as we can.” Patton said, “We’ll take the town, and I don’t care how many casualties.”
Off to Europe
From Texas we were sent to Louisiana for maneuvers in November of 1943, and we damn near froze while training there.We went back to Camp Swift in February and left by train for New York.
After a week in New York, we boarded the HMT Highland Princess, a refrigerated freighter that had been carrying beef from Argentina to England and was converted to carry 3000 troops.After 12 or 13 days of bad English rations across the Atlantic, we finally landed at Avenout, England, on March 9, 1944.
From Walsall we were sent to London for training, and the 302nd was assigned to the 12th Army Group. We were in London when the Germans began using buzz bombs.
I remember the first night they came. I had gone out for a few belts, and we heard the sirens and saw the searchlights. They were little rockets, but I didn’t know they had fire coming out the back of them. I turned to a London cop and said, “There’s a goddamn tough guy bombing London with the search lights on.”
He turned to me and said, “I think it’s more than that, Yank. You’d better put your hard hat on.” He meant that all the anti-aircraft fire going up had to come down, and it could kill more people than the buzz bombs.
All of a sudden the noise stopped and I figured they got the guy. Then BOOM, the bomb hit not too far away. I didn’t know the buzz bombs were designed to run out of fuel and then drop to the ground and explode.
The 302nd Signal Operation Battalion landed at Omaha Beach in Normandy that July, about a month after D-Day. The fiercest fighting in the area was over, but what we called “Bed-check Jerry” still happened about dusk each night. German planes would fly over as night fell and strafe targets. In places we still saw the bodies of German casualties stacked like cordwood.
At the end of July, General Patton broke through the Normandy Peninsula, and the 12th Army Group under General Bradley moved to St. Sauveur-Lendelin and then to Laval.
We passed through towns and saw all the rubble and the ruin caused by war-knocked out tanks and dead animals everywhere. The good part was being welcomed by cheering mobs of French who were happy to be rid of the goddamn Germans.
About the time Paris was liberated in August, we moved into tents behind the Palace at Versailles and stayed there about three weeks. We were all curious about what it was like in Paris-really what the women in Paris were like-and didn’t want to wait until passes were issued.
So one night about 30 of us headed into Paris just so we could say we had been there. When we got to the river, you know, the Seine, we had to steal a boat to get across. I was with a hell of a bunch of good guys. We’d hear a noise and whisper, “Who’s there?” “Americans.” We’d ask, “Find any girls?” “No, you?” “No!” We were like the goddamn Keystone Cops.
We only stayed one night because we had to get back to Versailles or be found AWOL.
Life at Verdun
In September of 1944 our unit moved from Versailles to Verdun to catch up with the front lines. The American 1st and 3rd Armies had pushed within a few miles of the Siegfried line defenses.
Verdun became our base for about eight or nine months. During that time some of us were sent up to St. Vith to guard a repeater station. On the way there we’d run into a few soldiers dressed like Americans who talked like Americans. But we were never sure.
We’d shout, “Who goes there?” Then “Who plays for the Yankees?” If they didn’t say DiMaggio, we knew they were Germans. If they were, they usually just gave up, surrendered.
For the most part the 302nd and the 305th Signal Operation Battalions in Verdun ran all the communication for the Allies in Europe until V-E Day in May. That meant phones and radios and teletype-everything.
Sometimes it was boring, and we created entertainment-like stage shows. I played on the 302nd basketball team, and that winter we won the 12th Army Group Championship, going 43-5 and winning 37 games in a row. The only team to beat us was from Eisenhower’s group. He got the best; those guys were like professionals.
Battle of the Bulge
I guess the climax of the 302nd Signal Operation Battalion was the winter of 1944-’45. It was cold as hell, and in December the Germans made a push with 15 Divisions into the Ardennes Forest.
Communication demands exploded, and we were busy all the time. The heavy fighting was away from our communication center, but Verdun was hit with nightly air attacks.
The weather was terrible, and at the front the Germans at first made progress, pushing a bulge in the Allied line. That’s where the name came from: Battle of the Bulge. It didn’t look too good for us until almost Christmas when the weather broke. With clear skies our planes could finally get up and bomb the shit out of the Germans
We continued to handle all the communications for Europe from Verdun while the Allies pushed the Germans back to Berlin. Like I said, I played a lot of basketball and tried to do my job. But I wasn’t always where I was supposed to be.
The 29th Infantry Division was nearby. Now that’s a goddamn tough outfit. My lieutenant, Lt. Morris, said to me one day, “Joe, let’s go souvenir hunting.”
He said he knew what areas had been cleared by the MPs, and he wanted to see if the 29th was still around. So we go and get to the last outpost. The MPs tell us we’re on our own from there. I remember there was an apple orchard, and it looked like the Germans had just dropped everything they had. There was stuff all over.
Then I see a dead German; poor guy had been shot between the eyes, and he had a beautiful ring on his finger. The jeep driver with us says, “Hey Joe, why don’t you take that ring?”
I say, “I’d have to cut his finger off to get it.” The driver tells me the German will never know.
About then another GI comes by, sees the ring, and boom…took out a knife, cut the finger off, and wiped the knife on his handkerchief. I said, “There’s a guy with a lot of goddamn guts.” I couldn’t do that.
Right about then out of the corner of my eye I see a head pop up out of a foxhole and then go back down. I go over there and up jumps a goddamn German. Scares the hell out of me, so I grab the bayonet off my rifle and threaten him. The Lieutenant yells for me to use my rifle.
Well, the German is more scared than I am and drops to his knees. Pretty soon another one jumps up, and I think to myself, “I just captured two POWs. I’m going to have them do all my work for me.
The Lieutenant reminds me I can’t claim I captured them because we’re not really supposed to be where we are. I think they eventually went to a POW camp.
Wounded or not Wounded
Right about then some German 88’s start firing where we were souvenir hunting, and shrapnel is flying all around. Just as I dive into a ditch for cover, I feel this stinging and burning behind me. I reach around, and my hand is covered in blood.
I had been shot in the ass. Or at least shrapnel from an 88 had hit me. When things quieted down, I said to the lieutenant, “Well, I got my Purple Heart.” I knew I had to have an officer verify it.
He said, “Joe, you ain’t got shit. Remember, we’re not even supposed to be here.” If I had tried to claim it, we’d all have been in trouble. I was eventually patched up by a medic. I always say that guy saved my butt.
I did get some souvenirs. I had a German cap that I wore everywhere back in Sonora until it finally fell apart. I also had a Luger, a Nazi helmet, and a Nazi bayonet, but I’ve given them all away. I still have the big scar on my ass.
Really, I did what I was supposed to do most of the time. But I had some fun too. Because I helped run all the telephones in Europe, I could call just about anywhere. And I did.
I knew Jackie Dambacher, Punny’s older brother, was in Europe, and I found out where he was stationed. I went to the switchboard and called the unit. A guy answers and says, “Yes Sir!”
Hell, nobody had ever called me sir before. He must have thought I was a general or something. I said, “Let me talk to Sgt. Dambacher.”
He said, “Is it important? We’re about ready to head out.”
Well, Jackie gets on the phone and doesn’t know it’s me. I say, “Sergeant, when you get to where you’re going, I want you to blow the town to hell. I don’t want to see a goddamn tree standing. Understand?”
“Yes sir,” he said. “But who should I say told me?”
“A guy from Sonora. A guy named Joe Huante.”
Jackie started laughing. “Why you son of a bitch,” he said.
We talked about that call a lot after the war.
Leno Fletcher was another guy over there from Sonora. He was a medic and real religious. I knew he was at an evacuation hospital, so when I was at the switchboard I got the number.
“Let me talk to Cpl. Fletcher,” I say.
There’s thunder outside our communications center, and when Leno comes on, BOOM, the thunder cracks. He says, “Joe, what was that?”
I tell him they’re shelling the hell out of us. “Oh my God, Joe, take care of yourself,” he yells into the phone.
Then I tell the guy next to me to hit a little clicker that sounds like a machine gun firing.
“Joe, what’s that?” Leno yells.
I tell him machine guns are firing at us. “Oh, no, Joe,” Leno says. “What are you going to do?”
I tell him, “Leno, you’re a medic. You can get one of those little black pills. Get one and send it to me. I may have to take it.”
“No, no, no,” he says. “Don’t do that.”
“I got to get out of this hellhole,” I say.
“Joe, I can’t do that. I’m Catholic.” About then I started laughing, and Leno says “You so and so.”
Art Kearney was also from Sonora, and I called him when we were in Europe. He was in an ordnance outfit, and I talked to him for quite a while.
I tried to call Nan Rodriquez, Bumpy’s mother back in the States. I ended up calling the Pentagon … thought they’d be able to get me to her. That one didn’t work.
Army of Occupation
During the war I had an opportunity to become an officer, to get a battlefield commission. But when they
asked, I said hell no. For one thing, the officers had a white insignia on the back of their helmets. I always thought it was a target for any German with a gun. And the other reason was I knew I wasn’t an American citizen.
V-E Day was May 8, 1944, and that was about the time my unit moved from Verdun to Wiesbaden in Germany. We passed through scenic mountain ranges but there were ruins everywhere. Crowds along the road in France had been cheering and yelling; in Germany they just stood and watched. Some asked for candy.
We used the Central Hotel in Wiesbaden as our headquarters for about two months and had it pretty nice. There was a tennis court and swimming pool, beer and wine. The 302nd became part of the Army of Occupation.
In July we moved to Heidelberg, and I was stationed there when I got to see the concentration camp at Dachau. It had been liberated months before, and all the people were gone. But we saw the ovens.
After the Japanese surrender in September, our unit slowly began rotating home. I went to New Jersey by ship then was flown to Camp Beale near Sacramento.
Now I had never become a citizen, and when I was at Camp Beale, they told a few of us if we wanted to stay and take five days of citizenship classes, we could become U.S. citizens. Hell, I had been in the Army almost three years; I wasn’t going to spend another five days. I said no thanks and came home. That was February, 1946.
Life after War
My first job in Sonora after the war was at the Tuolumne Foundry on Lime Kiln Road. By 1947 I was working as a bartender at the Twain Harte Lodge. That was also the year I met Helen Moore. Helen was an operator for the phone company, working a split shift in February of 1947. I think the first time we noticed each other I was walking down Washington in front of Courthouse Park, and she was walking in front of the Memorial Hall across the street.
When she went back to work that afternoon, her friend Bev at the phone company told her who I was, and soon we started dating. About eight months later in October of 1947, we got married. Some people might think that’s kind of fast, but that was how it was in those days. Next October will be our 65th anniversary.
Shortly after I got married, a fellow came into the Twain Harte lodge asking if I knew a big guy named Hunky Dilbeck. I knew Hunky and told the guy to stick around. Hunky worked in the woods and generally stopped for gas next door on his way home. That fellow said he was also looking for a guy named Joe Huante. When I asked why, he said he was recruiting Hunky and Joe to play basketball and football. He said he might be able to get them into UCLA.
Well, UCLA was my baby. I went down there and looked around. They wanted me to live in a quonset hut. I was married by then and asked Helen if she could live in a quonset hut, and she said no. No more UCLA. I think Hunky ended up on the track team at Cal.
Some people also wanted me to do sports at Sacramento City College. I even went there and registered for classes. They gave me all these goddamn books, but there was no way I was going to read them. I had been to war and was done with school, so I came right home.
The Bar Business
I think most people in this town know me as a bartender and businessman because I worked in bars or owned them most of my life after the war. In 1949 I went to work for Bucky Guissi at the King of Clubs, and in 1955 I became bar manager at the Sonora Inn. I had a lot of customers that followed me wherever I went.
Helen and I had two kids during that time. My son, Joey, was born in 1948 and my daughter, Linda, in 1952. A lot of people know Linda because she works at Sonora Elementary School.
In 1963 I decided I wanted to buy my own bar, and the old Copper Club was for sale. But remember when I said I wasn’t a citizen? For years I had had a lot of friends try to talk me into becoming a citizen, but something always got in the way or held me back. Maybe I didn’t know if I could do it.
Well about then my friend Ed Gorgas tells me, “You can’t own a goddamn bar. You’re not a citizen.” Gorgas was a lawyer, so I figured he must know what he’s talking about.
Jimmy Hardin was another friend of mine, long before he became a superior court judge. He also got on my case and asked me why I wasn’t a citizen. I told him about not wanting to stay an extra five days in the Army.
Those two guys, Ed Gorgas and Jimmy Hardin, made me go with them to San Francisco and do the swearing stuff and become a citizen. They’re the reason I got the bar. They’re also the reason I’m a Democrat.
You see in the car on the way home, Ed and Jim told me I was now a citizen and had to raise my right hand and repeat after them. “I, Joe Huante, solemnly swear that I’ll be a Democrat so long as I live and won’t ever change.” They were my sponsors for citizenship. I had to do it.
So I became a U.S. citizen and bought the bar. Right away I had a contest to name it. I think I offered $50 as a prize for the best name. Vic Filiberti said, “Why not call it Joe’s Office? If someone asks a guy where he was, he can always say, Joe’s Office.”
Somehow I never got around to paying Vic the 50 bucks. He joked and called me all kinds of names …”You cheap son of a bitch.” Poor guy got cancer and died on me.
After awhile, I took in Paul Delnero as a partner, and we also bought the bar next to the old Europa. We called it The Branch. We had The Office and The Branch Office.
Eventually we sold both of those and bought The Longhorn out on Highway 49 from Dante Pastorini. We called that one Partners Plus One. The cook was the plus one.
Sometime in the ’80s we sold that bar, and I went to work for Charlie Depaoli at the Wagon Wheel as his bartender, and I worked there for four or five years. I retired in 1989. Oh I’d bartend up at the Elks when they needed me, but I was retired.
When I look back, I don’t have regrets. You know I do wish my boy were here. Joey passed away in 1981. I wish he were here.
And I don’t have regrets about the war. When I first went in, I thought I wanted to be a paratrooper because I had seen so many movies with guys jumping out of the planes. I even signed up for that, but they only took the first 45 guys. And that was lucky for me. Not too many of those guys ever came back.
There are a couple guys from my unit that I’ve kept in touch with, but most of them are gone. A guy named Starks lives in Oregon, and I talked to him on the phone last Christmas. I’ve got all kinds of pictures, but most of the guys are dead.
Before the strokes I’ve had, we traveled quite a few places. We went to Europe in 2000 with Ed Gorgas and his wife and visited Normandy. We took a picture over there of me with my old Eisenhower jacket on. That jacket is downtown at the museum now.
When I visited Omaha Beach on that trip to Europe, I made a point of collecting some sand. I still have it in a little bottle on my mantel.
I had my first stroke in the early ’90s. I was up at the Elks having lunch with Jack Eddy. He asked me a question, and when I tried to answer, only some babble came out. He got hold of Helen, and she got me to the hospital. I’ve had a few small ones since then, maybe seven or eight all together.
The strokes have numbed my left side and my left hand won’t work very well. But the therapy has helped, and I do OK.
When asked what’s the best part of my life, I say it was marrying Helen. The key to our marriage is that we trust each other.
These days I watch a lot of sports on TV. I just try to keep alive. I have a daughter, two granddaughters, and three great-granddaughters. And I’ll have a great-grandson in July.
I think I made a little mark in this town. But the best thing has been Helen. That’s the best part of my life. Where the hell would I be without her?
Joe, as a member of the 302nd Signal Operation Battalion, received four battle stars:
–Northern France (25 July 1944 to 14 September 1944)
–Rhineland (15 September 1944 to 21 March 1945)
–Ardennes (16 December 1944 to 25 January 1945)
–Central Europe (22 March 1945 to 9 May 1945)
The unit received many letters of commendation from a variety of officers, including General Omar Bradley and Brigadier General Charles E. Ryan. Each commended the 302nd for maintaining signal communications at the highest level during a critical period of the war.