main story image for facebook sharing

From Behind the Lens

Memories and Advice of a Life Well Lived

A brightly decorated pavilion at Admiral Baker Park in San Diego, California, bustles with activity. A party is well underway. Just about 100 people have gathered to celebrate a father, grandfather, great grandfather and friend. His name is Joe Renteria. Wearing a vibrantly colored Hawaiian shirt and a long silver braid down his back, he walks confidently around the tables, shaking hands and embracing some in hugs of love.


Renteria is a veteran of World War II and Korea. A retired chief photographer's mate, he trudged through muddy, humid jungles during the battle of Guadalcanal and flew reconnaissance missions over enemy ships.

Early Years

Born in Emporia, Kansas, July 17, 1917, Renteria had a relatively normal childhood. But when he was just 8 years old, his family could no longer care for him and he was sent to a Catholic orphanage.

Renteria was athletic, even as a young boy, but he was also Cherokee and proud, and he was bullied by other boys. Expelled after a fight, Renteria wandered the streets of the Midwest, homeless and alone.

But he had a new sense of freedom, no one to tell him no and no plans. He hopped aboard a freight train and travelled across the United States, bound for many destinations: California, Wisconsin and New Mexico. He picked up work where he could.

In New Mexico, he found adventure with the renowned Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey circus, travelling with clowns, acrobats and a menagerie of animals. Renteria's job was to take care of the animals. He would feed them and set up their pens.

There was this big fella and he would walk on these tall stilts," Renteria remembered with a smile and wide grin, followed by a deep, joy-filled laugh. "He made a pair to fit me and taught [me] to walk on them. When we would pull into a town, we would walk into the tent on them. I remember the children laughing and smiling."


The Caring Father

When he was 16, Renteria found a place to call home in another orphanage, Father Flanagan's Boys Home. Father Edward Flanagan, a Roman Catholic priest, founded the home, now called Boys Town, in 1917 in the outskirts of Omaha, Nebraska, and dedicated his life to the care, treatment and education of at-risk youth. According to Sue Colverd in "Developing Emotional Intelligence in the Primary School," the orphanage's methods not only revolutionized juvenile care in 20th-century America, but influenced public boys' homes worldwide.

Renteria wasn't Catholic and as such didn't attend church with the other children, but he found his niche and began to make friends. Flanagan must have seen something in Renteria and encouraged him to be the best version of himself.

"I could order you attend church," Flanagan said in 1933, during a chat that began to change everything for Renteria. "But I would appreciate it if you would come."

Appreciate - a simple word that has followed Renteria throughout his life, a simple word that carries so much meaning and so many memories.


I have used the word much in my life, and some would even call it my life's motto," said Renteria. "Remember that word: Appreciate."


Still, life could be hard. Boys Town placed orphans in the homes of surrounding families so they could learn trades and attend school. Renteria's first home was awful. He worked non-stop on a farm all day and wasn't allowed to attend school. The farmer even cut his portions of meals.

Upon hearing this, Flanagan immediately moved Renteria to a different home, one full of welcoming love. However, he was not to stay long.

Into the Service

When he turned 18 in 1935, during the Depression, there were not many options for a poor boy. Renteria enlisted in the Army soon after graduation, serving a three-year stint.

"I was a machine gunner, and we know they don't live long," Renteria said with a slight smile and laugh. He "got out when my time was finished," and enlisted in the Navy in 1938, heading to Great Lakes, Illinois, for boot camp.

The Navy trained Renteria as an aviation mechanic, sending him to North Island in San Diego. There was only one problem: While he was in the Army, he had fallen deeply in love with a young woman named Jill Roath.

Photo Collage 1



At the time, the Navy prohibited married men from enlisting. So they kept their relationship a secret.

He sent for Jill, and she moved into a home outside the base. Renteria used his passes to visit her, but he wanted to fully commit to their future.

"We married in secret," Renteria recalled. "I knew I might get in trouble, but it was love."

Renteria knew Morse code, and could see their home from the hanger where he worked. He taught his new bride the code as well, and they would spend a few moments on his duty days communicating via flashlight, saying phrases like "I love you" and "I miss you."

The secret communication and their secret marriage were soon discovered. Renteria found himself standing before officers, including his commander. He told them the truth, and although he was punished and ordered to stand extra duty, it could have been much worse.

Renteria and his wife transferred to Hawaii in the summer of 1941. Shortly after, he was sent to Pensacola, Florida, to the Navy's photography school. Just months later, the United States would be dealt a blow most Americans didn't see coming when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in the early morning hours of Dec. 7, 1941. Ships sank and diesel fuel ignited, cooking off bombs and ammunition, engulfing Pearl Harbor in fire and thick black smoke. War broke out on two fronts, and the call to arms spread like wildfire across the nation.

Renteria returned to Hawaii in early 1942, assisting with the cleanup and recovery.

Secret Mission

Then, one day as Renteria was performing his daily duties, a lieutenant arrived with a manila envelope marked in a bold red stamp: 'SECRET.' Carrying his seabag and photography equipment, Renteria boarded a plane bound for Noumea, New Caledonia, in the South Pacific.

Renteria was soon flying covert missions over the small islands that dotted the South Pacific. His job was simple yet difficult: Find and photograph not only enemy bases, but their fleets as well. Find areas that could serve as possible landing sites or forward operating bases.

He hand delivered his photos directly to Admiral William "Bull" Halsey Jr., who commanded the South Pacific Area and later Third Fleet.

The first time in Noumea, [New] Caledonia, I was standing there at attention, waiting for the lieutenant to take the photos," Renteria said, his memory so sharp he remembers every detail as if it occurred yesterday. "I wasn't supposed to talk to the admiral - ever. ... The officer says, 'Well bring them!' I forgot about protocol and I just turned around and walked to the admiral. He says, 'From now on you bring them to me.'"


To get the proper photo, Renteria would slide the canopy of the aircraft back to avoid the glare of the glass enclosure. He felt the wind in his hair as he leaned out as far as his harness would let him to get that perfect shot.

Much of the time, anti-aircraft gunfire would pop in black smoke around the plane, sending shrapnel in all directions.

To make matters more intense, Renteria and his pilot would fly without any armament - no weapons to defend themselves - to conserve fuel.

"Of course you were scared," Renteria said. "But you couldn't think about it then. You couldn't."

Their job was to not only document the enemy, but do it and survive.
Not everyone in his squadron was so lucky, however. Still, there was no time to mourn the dead. Renteria had work to do.

He next joined Marines on their island-hopping campaign as they forced the imperial Japanese soldiers further and further out of the South Pacific. He continued to gather intel, but he also took photos of battles and firefights, landing at Guadalcanal, Bougainville and other islands.

At Guadalcanal, Renteria developed a code to keep track of his fellow photographers - men he felt responsible for. Each photographer had a clicker, a small rectangular hollow box with a thin piece of aluminum metal across it. The photographer could press the metal and when it was released, it let out a short click. Renteria would click his, and the men would click back to signal that they were OK.

One day, Renteria saw a squadron of Japanese planes flying straight at his position on Guadalcanal. Men took cover in ditches and under trees. Renteria didn't quite have time to hide, however. Instead, he crouched down and continued to click his shutter, seemingly fearless. That photo, a copy of which still resides in Renteria's collection, shows Marines diving for cover in a gulley as a Japanese Zero screams overhead.

"I couldn't get to the ditch yet," Renteria recalled, holding the photo, studying it as he remembered that day. "Oh yeah, you're scared."

Photo Collage 2



That wasn't even his most important picture. Although most of his work was classified, one photo would garner him more accolades than any other he took during the war: a photo of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who made a surprise visit to New Caledonia in 1943.

Renteria had just returned from a mission and was quickly sent to the flight line to capture the moment. That photo of Roosevelt, Halsey and Lt. Gen. Millard Fillmore, commander of U.S. Army Forces of the South Pacific, was published in papers across the U.S.

Post-War Service

In October 1945, six months after Victory in Europe Day and just weeks after Victory in Japan Day, 51 nations sent delegates to San Francisco. This meeting would give birth to the United Nations.

Renteria, now stationed in California with his wife and children, was again given orders. He traveled to the Golden City to photograph the historic event.

Just a few months later, Renteria received another set of orders stamped "SECRET," and boarded a plane back to the South Pacific.

The photos taken during this assignment would also remain classified for decades, for they documented a very secret, very powerful new weapon. In July 1946, the military began a series of nuclear bomb tests code-named Operation Crossroads on Bikini Atoll.

"I would wait and see the flash [of the bomb] and click the shutter several times to make sure I had the best shot possible," Renteria said, explaining that he set up his cameras on an adjacent island and snapped pictures from a beach facing the atoll.

Decommissioned ships were used during the experiment to see how nuclear radiation affected them. After the bomb tests, when the levels were deemed "safe," Renteria boarded select ships to take photos.

"As we went down in the ship," Renteria said, "if the [Geiger counter] sounded that the levels were too high, we would run out of there."

Renteria's last assignment would be with a squadron aboard USS Shangri-La (CV-38) for the ship's 1954 deployment. Now a chief petty officer, Renteria was in charge of the photo lab. He not only trained the Sailors, but mentored them as well.

"You have to maintain a good relationship with your personnel," he said. "If [a chief] sees that you're [a Sailor] interested enough to pay attention to what you're doing to learn ... he's going to help you try and learn your job."

After he returned from that deployment, Renteria retired from the Navy with 20 years of service.

Finding His Roots

Photo Collage 2



Renteria and his family moved to San Diego where he ran the photo lab at San Diego State College. He shot photos for the campus and developed film for professors and students.

He also became more interested in his Cherokee roots. He had always been proud of them, but he had not been raised in a tribe and had not participated in tribal affairs.

An acquaintance introduced him to a financially struggling First Nation nonprofit. Renteria used his military training to take charge and increase the revenue. Over the years, he also worked with the Indian Human Resources Center, Indian Child Services and Indian Health Services. To this day, he remains involved with the Native American community in the San Diego region.

Renteria's wife, Jill, passed away in 2009. He still thinks of her fondly. In fact, a dented old metal box houses some of his most precious memories: letters he and his wife exchanged throughout the war. In the letters, they spoke of their children, missed holidays and the weather. They always ended with "I love you."

He also has another special keepsake: a harmonica, smoothed with wear, the silver metal slightly discolored by years of use. A present from Jill, it travelled with him throughout the war.

Although his hands are now weathered with age, he can still play. Memories seem to come back as he runs his fingers over the thin metal. He presses his lips to it and a beautiful long note fills the room. An unknown melody hangs in the air. When he comes to a stop, he holds the harmonica tightly in both hands and softly speaks: "71 years, 71 wonderful years [with Jill]."

100 Years Young

Today, Renteria is 100 years old, and at 5 feet 4 inches, he is just as active as a much younger man. Just five years ago, he still walked on stilts to the amazement and shock of many. The stilts have been put away, but Renteria is still just as agile. He still drives to meetings for Indian Affairs.

"I worry [about my dad] sometimes," said Renteria's son Michael. "But I don't think I could tell him no."

Back at the party celebrating Renteria's life and legacy, laughter and joy cover the crowd like a thick blanket. A group of women sprinkle flour on a stainless steel table with graceful, well-practiced strokes. They dig their hands into a mound of dough, flattening it into dish-size circles.

They drop the dough in hot oil and it sizzles into Native American fry bread. Elders help themselves to the food spread out on tables, followed by children and then the rest of Renteria's family and friends.

Next comes cake, then members of various First Nation tribes present Renteria with gifts: an eagle feather, an American flag, a Native American blanket.

At 100 years old, the best advice Renteria can give is this: Appreciate. Appreciate family. Appreciate friends. Appreciate life.

Editor's Note: For Joe Renteria's advice to Chiefs read here.