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Flight Lieutenant Gilbert de la Rocha: A Latin American’s Journey to the Royal Canadian Air Force

420 Squadron Halifax - photo credit www.bombercommandmuseum.ca


By Capt Rey Garcia-Salas

In the tumultuous era of World War II, stories of courage and sacrifice abound, each narrative a testament to the human spirit’s resilience. Among these tales of valor stands Gilbert de la Rocha, a man whose journey from the sun-drenched streets of Los Angeles to the skies of Europe reflects the indomitable will of those who seek to make a difference.

Gilbert’s odyssey began on the outskirts of Culiacan, Mexico, where he drew his first breath on December 1, 1922. At the tender age of eight months, he embarked on a new chapter of his life, joining his family as they sought new opportunities in the bustling city of Los Angeles.

As he matured, Gilbert’s ambitions grew alongside him. Yet, as fate would have it, his aspirations collided with the unfolding events of history when World War II erupted across the globe. Eager to serve his country, Gilbert volunteered for the U.S. Coast Guard, Navy, and Army Air Force, driven by a deep sense of duty and patriotism.

However, bureaucratic hurdles stood in Gilbert’s path. Despite his fervent desire to serve, his citizenship status prevented him from immediate enlistment. Undeterred by this setback, Gilbert refused to let his dreams falter. Determined to find a way to contribute to the war effort, he embarked on a daring journey northward to Canada.

With steadfast resolve, Gilbert boarded a train bound for the Canadian border, his heart set on joining the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF). Yet, his path was fraught with obstacles, as U.S. Border Guards intercepted him, suspecting him of attempting to evade the draft.

In a twist of fate, a Canadian Customs Officer intervened, offering Gilbert a lifeline in the form of a three-day pass to attempt enlisting. Seizing this opportunity with unwavering determination, Gilbert pressed forward, undeterred by the challenges that lay ahead.

On December 4, 1942, Gilbert de la Rocha took his place among the ranks of the Royal Canadian Air Force, marking the beginning of a new chapter in his remarkable journey. Following his enlistment in Vancouver, Gilbert underwent rigorous training at No. 4 Wireless School in Guelph, Ontario, where he honed his skills as a Gunner Wireless Operator.

As a Wireless Operator, Gilbert held a vital role within the aircrew. He was responsible for transmitting all messages to and from the aircraft to their base, ensuring seamless communication during missions. Operating in wireless silence, Gilbert remained vigilant, ready to address minor emergencies throughout the aircraft and serve as the reserve gunner when needed.

During his training, Gilbert progressed through the ranks, following the established protocol of the Royal Canadian Air Force. Initially, with a Military Service Number R204856, he held the rank of Leading Aircraftman (LAC) before earning promotion to Sergeant. Then, with a Military Service Number J38663, he ended up as Flight Lieutenant.

In the spring of 1943, Gilbert’s training culminated in his deployment to Europe as part of the esteemed 420 Snowy Owls Squadron. The 420 Squadron, adorned with a snowy owl badge, was formed at Waddington, Lincolnshire, England, on December 19, 1941. As the RCAF’s 18th Bomber Squadron formed overseas, it flew Hampden, Wellington, and Halifax aircraft on strategic and tactical bombing operations. Gilbert’s squadron flew 33 sorties over Europe, contributing significantly to the Allied efforts.

Following the cessation of hostilities, Gilbert returned to civilian life, honorably discharged from the Royal Canadian Air Force on September 14, 1945. His journey from Mexico to Canada and beyond stands as a testament to the resilience of the human spirit in the face of adversity, a legacy that will endure for generations to come.

Upon his return to civilian life, Gilbert’s dedication to service did not waver. Graduating from Sacramento State College with a Bachelor of Arts Degree, he embarked on a new mission: education and advocacy.

For over five decades, Gilbert dedicated himself to empowering his community, working tirelessly with the Latino population in Redwood City to further their education and rights. His impact was profound, extending beyond racial and cultural boundaries to touch the lives of all who knew him.

Acknowledgment: Since September last year, I have been fortunate to receive documentation and pictures from Kathleen de la Rocha, spouse of Pierre de la Rocha, who is the son of Gilbert de la Rocha. These invaluable contributions have illuminated Gilbert’s remarkable story, allowing us to honor his memory and celebrate his legacy with greater depth and appreciation. Also, I would like to thank historian Steven Dieter for his support on this article.