As the foreman of the historical E. O. Brown Ranch in the foothills of the McDowell Mountains, Harvey Noriega became a local legend by reputedly being the model for the Buckaroo emblazoned on the logo for the City of Scottsdale.
His only son, Raul V. Noriega, will forever be emblazoned on the hearts of many young marines stationed at Camp Pendleton in Southern California.
Stories have been told about Marines who would follow Raul’s POW license plates into service stations and grocery stores in order to listen to his story about service to country, family and God.
This is his story.
Raul Valdez Noriega grew up in Scottsdale, lived in a small house on East Garfield Street (now 2nd Street) and was the second Hispanic student to graduate from Scottsdale High School.
He fell in love with a pretty schoolmate by the name of Jessie Dominguez. Eventually they were engaged to be married – but a wedding was postponed due to the onset of WWII.
Raul was drafted into the Army on Dec. 2, 1941.
Over time, including advance training with the 607th Tank Destroyer Battalion, Raul received promotions to the NCO rank of Staff Sergeant and was deployed with the 607th TDB to Cheshire, England, on April 21, 1944.
Four companies of the battalion followed the initial invasion forces, landing on Utah Beach of Normandy, France, during the night of June 16. Raul recalled that the weather was rainy and cold; all units had to grease down their tanks’ cannons to prevent them from getting corroded, then wash them with warm water to get them fire-ready. The battalion moved inland off the beach on June 17.
The thousands upon thousands of hedgerows that surrounded French farms and homes made the fighting on the soggy Normandy turf as bad as it was at the landings on the beaches. The battalion’s three fighting companies were rotated within various infantry units as they were needed.
After 18 days of fighting, the 607th TDB arrived at the town of Pretot on July 5 – a mere 20 miles from their initial landing – and would remain for the next nine days.
On July 12, while on a reconnaissance mission along the perimeter of the Gerville Forest, Raul, two first lieutenants and a private were ambushed by German soldiers and taken prisoner.
Raul recalled that after initial interrogation, he was placed in the back of a truck with about 15 to 20 other soldiers. It was a wood burning vehicle and the prisoners had to push the truck when it ran out of sticks for fuel.
At some point the prisoners were transferred to a train. placed in cattle cars and taken as far as Paris. During that portion of his journey Raul attempted his first escape. He made it as far as a farmhouse, where the owners refused to help him. He was tied up in a basement until the German soldiers picked him up and interrogated him again.
At an assembly point in Paris, prisoners were put on a train with about 45 soldiers to a boxcar bound for Germany. Soon the train was halted and the prisoners were made to walk for days on end.
The prisoners were starved during this forced march and only when they happened upon a German encampment would they be fed if food was available.
Raul attempted his second escape, but was recaptured and this time hit with a rifle butt over the head, back and any part of the body where they could make contact.
Despite the severe punishment incurred, Raul made six or seven more escape attempts before arriving at a camp outside Frankfurt, He received the same “rifle butt” punishment upon each recapture.
As near to death as he was, Raul attempted one more escape when Allied Forces’ bombs fell on Frankfurt, only to be recaptured again and beaten one more time until he thought that he was going to be killed.
Raul finally ended up in a camp in German-occupied Poland called “Stalag III-C Alt Drewitz.”
The Winter of 1944 was approaching; the conditions within the POW camp were atrocious. Only one barracks had heat and the prisoners were usually given one meal a day that consisted of soup with the “flavor” of rutabaga and appeared at times to have small pieces of meat.
Prisoners soon came to recognize the meat appeared only when one of the workhorses had died.
It was here that Raul was issued a blanket that had to be shared with another POW. Cigarettes from the Red Cross packages became the instrument of trade when the men needed pieces of clothing or blankets to keep warm.
And yes, Raul Noriega attempted one more escape, only to wind up back in Stalag III-C.
Christmas 1944 had come and gone and news had reached the camp that the Russian Army was making great strides on the Eastern Front.
Then on Jan. 31, 1945, three Russian tanks burst through the main gate of the POW compound, freeing thousands of POWs.
Raul said they were fed very well by the Russians, mainly because their liberators had confiscated everything from the civilians in the area.
He departed Stalag III-C on Feb. 4, 1945, and walked approximately 160 miles to a town called Bomberg, from where he mailed his first letter home to Scottsdale.
The next 1,000 miles to Odessa was accomplished by walking, riding bicycles, horses, trucks and train.
After being processed, Raul joined 16 other GIs aboard an American oil tanker that took them Fort Hamilton, where they rejoined the U. S. Army.
Shortly after their return, Raul and his comrades were summoned to the White House to relate their experiences to President Harry Truman, who told the group. “It is impossible for me to believe what I have just been told.”
T/Sgt Noriega was officially discharged from the U. S. Army on Oct. 10, 1945. He and his wife Rosalie had two children, Rosalie and Raul Jr.
They moved to California before the total elimination of Scottsdale’s Mexican barrio in the late 1960s to make way for the Scottsdale Civic Center and Center for the Performing Arts.
Raul passed in 2013 and is interned at the Riverside National Cemetery, Riverside, California.
Sadly, only memories remain – and yet, isn’t that what Memorial Day is all about?
Author’s note: It has been my pleasure to work with Jodien Noriega, my co-researcher, and her husband Raul Jr. to recreate the military career of one of the true heroes of WWII. This story parallels the lives of thousands upon thousands of other prisoners of war of whose stories were never documented. God Bless the Greatest Generation.