It was Christmas Eve 1944 and Alfred Arrieta was part of a nine-member crew aboard a B-17 Flying Fortress, providing support to ground troops in the French countryside during the Battle of the Bulge, one of the bloodiest battles of World War II.
The 21-year-old American sergeant had been on 28 successful missions but this time would be different. The bomber – dubbed “Move Over Mabel” – had just dropped its payload over the Ardennes region when it was hit by German anti-aircraft artillery about 9,000 feet in the air, Arrieta said.
Several crew members were hit by shrapnel, including the pilot and a turret gunner, who lost an eye.
Arrieta did his best to help the shooter, injecting him with morphine as the crew braced for impact. The injured pilot attempted a forced landing.
“When we hit,” Arrieta said, slapping her hand on her knee, “we bounced about 40 feet [up] and go back down.
The plane landed somewhere near the Belgian border and the crew were rescued by the Free French Forces.
“I feel lucky. I’ve been through the Great Depression, the 20th century, and World War II,” Arrieta said recently at his Seal Beach home as he sat next to his wife, Frances. here, very grateful and proud of my country.”
Arrieta reached the milestone of the century on Tuesday and looks forward to honoring her fellow service members on Memorial Day on Monday. He was recently honored by the Seal Beach City Council and received a customary letter from the President of the United States. U.S. Representative Katie Porter’s (D-Irvine) office also presented her with an American flag flying above the U.S. Capitol.
Arrieta likes to reminisce. When he talks about his experience of the war, he gradually draws out the details as if it were a dream he had had the night before.
He said that after the plane crashed, the injured were taken to hospital but he and the other men who were not injured were left alone in Lille, France.
But they had money. There were several thousand francs stuffed in their evacuation kits provided by the US Air Force to troops who were in foreign territory.
After their near-death experience, the men rented hotel rooms, slept on beds with comfortable mattresses, and drank champagne.
“We got out and there was a cab and I said to the driver, ‘Where are the girls? Dancing?’ ”
The driver took them down a dark road to a warehouse. When the doors opened, they found people inside dancing, drinking, and celebrating Christmas Eve.
After a few weeks, the crew returned to active duty, and Arrieta flew three more missions with the 8th Air Force.
“But during that time we ate the best food and drank and danced,” he said.
The El Paso native is the proudest of his family. After the war, Arrieta married his wife, Frances. The two have been married for 69 years and raised 10 children together in the town of Hawaiian Gardens near Los Angeles.
Arrieta worked odd jobs to support his family, but in 1965 he decided to become a television repairman. He attended evening classes twice a week for a year after his usual work day.
He eventually got a job as a technician in Montgomery Ward and later opened his own repair shop in Norwalk. He did well and managed to retire at age 62.
“I’m so proud to see how much he’s accomplished and what he’s done for my siblings because he’s always managed to be there,” his son Frank Arrieta said. “He always made sure to come to our baseball games.”
Alfred Arrieta’s family had little when he was growing up and credits his father, who died when Arrieta was just 6 years old, with his work ethic and family values.
He said he could still see his father, Aparicio, walking down the road at the end of the day after working at a local railroad company. Arrieta would run up to him and eat the burrito or whatever was left in his father’s lunchbox, only now realizing that his father had saved the food just for him.
“He was holding my hand and I was smiling as I ate that burrito,” Arrieta said.
He said he also remembers his mother, Maria Garcia, cooking meals and selling them to teachers at her school during the Great Depression.
Arrieta likes to play old Spanish boleros for his children, the same type of music his mother listened to on the radio when he was a child. She was particularly fond of singer Agustin Lara, but Arrieta found the music a bit old-fashioned.
It wasn’t until he grew up and listened to the lyrics that he realized he just needed time to grow up and appreciate the music.
At 100, Arrieta maintains a growing playlist that he listens to on his phone. Her favorite song is “Solamente Una Vez” (Only Once) by Lara.
On her porch, her daughter Gloria Arrieta-Sherman is playing the song from her phone and Arrieta has a glint in her eye as the lyrics float through the air.
I loved in my life,
And nothing more.
“Every night I listen to this continuously,” he said.
Arrieta tells another story, then smiles, grateful that someone asked about her life.
“Thank you, because you have awakened my memory,” he said to a visitor. “Good times bad times. Good old times.”