Hector J. Santa Anna, 83; B-17 pilot portrayed in play about WWII

Times Staff Writer

Hector J. Santa Anna, who flew 35 combat missions over Europe as a B-17 bomber pilot during World War II and six decades later became a prominent character in a play about Latinos who served in the military during the war, has died. He was 83.

Santa Anna, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who was one of a small number of Latino pilots during World War II, died of pneumonia Dec. 9 at a hospital in Dover, Del., after a long illness, said his wife of 61 years, Olive.

A descendant of the brother of Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna -- the Mexican general who led the bloody siege against the Alamo in 1836 -- Santa Anna was born in Miami, Ariz., a small mining town, Feb. 26, 1923.

Upon graduating from high school in 1940, he moved to California to earn money for college. But after visiting an Army Air Forces training field and deciding that "This is what I'd like to do," he enlisted in the Army in 1942.

Of the 97 cadets who received their wings at Brooks Field in Texas on July 29, 1943, Santa Anna later said, he was the only Latino.

Based in Sudbury, Suffolk, England, Santa Anna flew 35 combat missions from November 1944 to March 1945.

On one mission, he recalled, enemy flak knocked out one of the engines, ruptured the gas tanks and destroyed the radio, oxygen system, elevator controls and all of the tires. But Santa Anna kept the crippled plane in the air, and after crash-landing at an Allied airfield in Belgium, crew members counted more than 100 holes in the aircraft before they quit counting.

For years afterward, one former crew member would say that Santa Anna was such a good pilot, he "could fly a boxcar."

Earlier this year, he found himself as one of the characters in "Voices of Valor," a play by James Garcia that dramatizes the lives of Latino World War II veterans and their families.

The two-act play was premiered at Arizona State University in March.

Garcia's play is based on personal narratives culled from more than 550 interviews, including Santa Anna's, that have been conducted for the U.S. Latino & Latina World War II Oral History Project.

The project, begun in 1999, is directed by Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin.

In "Voices of Valor," six actors play 40 characters. They are all composites, except one -- Santa Anna.

"There was no way I could fictionalize him because he was just too unique," Garcia told The Times this week.

"All the other guys were interesting in and of themselves, but none of the others were the great-great-nephew of Gen. Santa Anna.

"That any descendant of Gen. Santa Anna had ended up in a rural mining town in Arizona was astounding to me. Beyond that, he had been in a mining family and when he thought about joining the war effort, his father convinced him not to. He went to California and stumbled across the Army Air Corps and was fascinated by it and decided he's going to join."

And where did Santa Anna wind up for flight training? At Brooks Field in San Antonio, home of the Alamo. As the Hector Santa Anna character says in Garcia's play:

"San Antonio -- not the best place to be if you're a Santa Anna, I tell you right now. They must have thought I was returning to the scene of the crime. But there I am in the shadow of the Alamo, learning to fly B-17 bombers. I'm thinking to myself, 'Maybe if Gen. Santa Anna had B-17s, history might have turned out differently.' "

Garcia was so impressed with Santa Anna's story that he created a single scene for his character, giving him his own monologue that lasts about three minutes.

Garcia said he and the director "isolated that monologue and opened the second act with it. We felt it's so extraordinary and so special, and the audience is going to suck it right up, and they did. It has great impact."

Although Santa Anna had been in poor health, he was able to attend a performance in March. He was accompanied by his wife, two daughters and a granddaughter.

"That night he came to the play, he was a big celebrity and everybody wanted to get a picture with him," said Rivas-Rodriguez.

She said statistics on the number of Latinos who served in the military during World War II were not kept, but estimates range from 250,000 to 750,000. Of the Latinos interviewed for the oral history project, only a few were pilots.

"World War II defined their lives, especially the pilots, who were a pretty cocky group of men," she said. "It was certainly true of Mr. Santa Anna. He was supremely self-confident, but all the pilots we interviewed really carry themselves with that pride. They were an elite group and were so proud of being pilots."

While noting that "the bar just to become a cadet was high to begin with," she said, Latino cadets also had to deal with prejudice.

In his 2003 interview for the oral history project, Santa Anna said "there weren't many Latinos taking flight training as an aviation cadet." And in his case, he said, "It wasn't easy being the only one. They would always single you out, you know? With a name like Santa Anna, you stood out; some would accept you, and others would not."

Although Santa Anna had a chance to tell his story in various interviews over the years, including one for the "War in Europe" segment of the documentary "Heroes of World War II," Rivas-Rodriguez said that Latinos who served in the military during World War II in general "have never been given their due."

"If you read about World War II, chances are you're not going to find somebody with a name like Santa Anna in it," she said.

"We have to make sure these stories are included in any books about World War II. But over and over again they're left out, and you couldn't find a group of people that are more patriotic and really live up to the ideals of this country.

"Mr. Santa Anna is a case in point. He was an outstanding example of what it means to be an American."

After the war, Santa Anna flew 127 missions during the Berlin Airlift. In the 1950s, he was chief of a military protocol office in Madrid and served at the Pentagon as a special assistant secretary of Defense for public affairs in the 1960s before retiring from the Air Force in 1964.

He then became chief of NASA's exhibit design and operations.

During the Richard M. Nixon administration, he was the representative to the White House from the Office of Economic Opportunity, served on the White House Council on Aging and was a member of the president's Cabinet Committee on Opportunities for Spanish-Speaking People.

He later worked with the Mexican government on aviation issues while at the Federal Aviation Administration in Fort Worth.

After retiring from the FAA in 1985, he continued to fly and was a flight instructor at a Navy flying club in Annapolis, Md.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by daughters Sylvia Willoughby and Cynthia Abi-Habib; sister Norma Gauster; brother Otto Santa Anna; and five grandchildren.

He will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery on Friday.


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