By MICHAEL RODRIGUEZ
South Padre Parade
The year was 1944 when a then 19-year-old Mauricio G. Flores, who just a year prior was living the quiet life of a grocery store clerk in San Benito, found himself in the South Pacific aboard the U.S.S. Massachusetts, where his life nearly came to an end on more than one occasion.
Now 87, Flores recently recalled each harrowing experience while serving as a First Class Seaman in the Navy, thanks in large part to a painting given to him that depicts the battleship he grew attached to during his 27 months at sea.
Speaking candidly, Flores – ever the humble gentleman – first credited God during an interview with the News on Thursday and expressed gratitude for his life lived, but more so for his life.
Drafted in 1943, Flores left a worried mother and caring family behind two years after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor to serve his country, this as Nazi forces continued to invade Europe.
America was united; meanwhile, Flores felt torn from his family.
“I remember my mom saying, ‘Porque te vas’ (why are you leaving)? That really did it,” said Flores. “She didn’t understand why I had to go, even years later.”
Though reluctant, Flores also wasn’t one to skirt responsibility. In fact, the now-decorated war veteran is considered a patriot amongst his peers as well as in the community.
Indeed, the sailor whose boyish appearance belied a warrior’s heart eventually found himself aboard the U.S.S. Massachusetts, hailed at that time as the heaviest ship ever launched in Quincy, Massachusetts, and involved in 12 battles.
During his service aboard “Big Mamie” – the name affectionately given to the Massachusetts – Flores recalled three battleships being taken down by Japanese kamikazes. As the ship’s gunner, Flores did his part in fighting back.
Still, in war, Flores said there’s a perpetual feeling of impending doom – not necessarily fear.
“I was prepared not to come back,” Flores said from his kitchen table, which was covered in military documentation, official record of the proud veteran’s service. “But because prayers of families from the U.S., and my mother especially wanting me back, I asked God to spare me. I want to glorify Him all of my life.”
While engaged in battle for the better part of two years, it was actually the threat of Mother Nature that proved more deadly.
What’s been described as a catastrophic typhoon tore through the South Pacific, leaving in its devastating path destroyers that succumbed to 60-feet tall waves and sank.
A seasick Flores could no longer take the violent rocking of the ship and sought the Massachusetts’ surface, but he was then greeted by furious winds that tossed him about like a rag doll. “I thought I was going overboard,” Flores remembered about his brush with death. “Waves were hitting me left and right, and I was seasick and couldn’t take it.”
Just when Flores thought he’d be joining the other destroyers in Davy Jones’s locker, he grabbed hold of two nearby cables and clung for life. He did this until the storm subsided, which was nearly 12 hours later.
In a previous interview, Flores said he was given the strength to hold on from God, “because I’m not that strong.”
Flores had survived, and although he experienced much more, including a red sky following the dropping of the atomic bomb over Hiroshima, Japan on Aug. 6 of 1945, what has since occupied his thoughts is how his strong devotion to God kept him alive.
Tough times still awaited Flores, however. When honorably discharged in January of 1946, he again found himself in danger of losing his life, this time due to perceived radiation poisoning.
His ailment has never been clarified by the military.
Following his three-month hospitalization that included a special visit from his sister Santos, Flores was finally able to come home.
What he remembers the most of this happy occasion is how his mother, Pomposa, reacted when she first laid eyes on her boy… now a man.
“She cried a lot when I came back,” he said. “When I got home she couldn’t stop crying.”
It’s been over 65 years since Flores first stepped foot back on American soil, and he has since made good on his life.
Looking back, he’s especially grateful to have met Imelda, who became his wife of 53 years and mother of his children before passing in 2004. He has also credited his mother and sister Santos, not to mention her two sons John M. and Xavier A. Flores, for being two of the more influencing inspirations in his life.
Then there was Carlos Cortez, a friend of Flores’ who painted a depiction of the U.S.S. Massachusetts; hovering over the battleship in the painting is Jesus Christ with arms stretched out.
“He knew I wanted to get this picture of the battleship as large as I could, and with Jesus Christ over it, I want to let people know there is a God,” Flores said. “I’m very grateful to be alive.”