United States Navy fighter squadron VF-9 served on board the carrier Essex (CV 9) during that ship’s first cruise in the South Pacific in 1943-1944. LCDR Eugene Valencia got his baptism of fire in October 1943 during strikes against Japanese forces on Wake Island and at Tarawa.
On 11 November, Essex launched an attack on Japanese shipping in Rabaul Harbor. Assigned to escort the strike group that morning, Valencia made three strafing runs on a heavy cruiser despite heavy antiaircraft fire, assisted in covering torpedo planes returning from the attack, and shot down his first enemy plane. That afternoon, while providing fighter cover for his ship, he downed two more enemy aircraft and assisted in the destruction of a third. Flamboyant, outgoing, mercurial, and intense, Commander Valencia, a Latino from Los Angeles, went on to become the Navy’s third highest scoring ace of all time.
Valencia’s combat experience illustrates the necessity of diversity. Fortunately, during World War II, the Navy had no prohibitions against Hispanics serving in combat as it did against African Americans, enabling Latinos like Valencia to excel. During that War the Navy revolutionized its written racial policy, opening every billet to African Americans by 1945. Today, as then, during war the country cannot deprive itself of the talent of all of its people if it expects to win.