Juan C. Aranda Jr.’s heroic act has finally resurfaced after more than half a century.
The longtime Mountain View resident was scheduled to receive the Air Force Commendation Medal Monday, presented by U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo in a ceremony at Moffett Federal Airfield.
Commendation, however, was the last thing on Aranda’s mind 57 years ago, when he threw himself into the swirling floodwater with nothing but a rope in hand.
Thoughts of his young wife and baby daughter, his deserted station in the air-to-ground communications back at his military base and his own well-being were all superseded by the sight of a father and his three sons desperately clinging to a palm tree, only minutes to spare before tumbling into the roiling water below.
Although he probably wasn’t aware at the time, Aranda had been preparing for that moment his entire life. From swimming for crabs as a child in Puerto Rico to learning how to lifeguard when he served as a communications specialist at Wheelus Air Base in Libya, the young airman was the necessary combination of reckless, fearless and prepared.
The serendipitous convergence of events on that fateful night in Puerto Rico resulted in an opportunity for the small-town islander to rise to the occasion, risking his life to save four others in the stormy wrath of Hurricane Betsy, which had already raged for four days, killing nine people and wreaking more than $25 million in property damage in Puerto Rico alone.
Sitting comfortably on his porch in Mountain View on a recent sunny afternoon, Aranda, now 78, recounted the night’s events.
When Betsy struck, he was serving in the U.S. Air Force, stationed at Ramey Air Force Base in Puerto Rico. He decided to break curfew to check on his wife and 6-month-old daughter, who were living approximately 10 miles from the base.
After wading through roughly a mile of chest-deep water against wind gusts of up to 115 mph, he reached his house and found it safely above the floodwaters, which were receding.
Soon after his reunion with his family, however, townspeople from the village came calling for help.
“They don’t have firefighters or a fire station. They have a place where you get buckets, and everybody helps,” Aranda said. “That’s the way it works.”
Aranda followed the volunteers to the rushing creek, where he found the father and his sons, minutes from drowning.
“They had hypothermia, they had insects all over them, they were scared,” Aranda said. “There was nothing in sight. You knew they would drop off (into the water) eventually.”
Aranda was a good swimmer, and he was the lightest of the rescue group. His next plan of action came naturally to him – he jumped in.
The instant he hit the water, the current swept him downstream at breakneck speed. Miraculously, he managed to grab hold of the tree on the first try.
“I don’t know how I got there, but I got there,” he said. “I don’t know if the father pulled me up by my hair, or if I caught a branch, but all of a sudden, I was there.”
The father gave the young airman a look of astonished gratitude.
“You can’t describe that look,” Aranda said.
They worked together, easing the boys carefully down the rope, safely to the other side, and then crossed over themselves. At that point, they were all freezing.
Aranda recalled having the first and last cup of coffee of his life at the man’s house before he returned to the base. He spent the night in detention for breaking curfew.
For nearly half a century, Aranda sat quietly on the events of that night, not expecting anything to come of his heroic act. He was simply relieved to dodge a court martial or dishonorable discharge for breaking curfew.
“I just laid low and didn’t leave base. I was only concerned with saving my own butt,” he said with a laugh. “For months, I didn’t hear nothing from nobody.”
After serving two consecutive four-year terms in the armed forces, he settled in Mountain View in 1985.
Aranda embraced his new community, quickly becoming involved as a willing volunteer and a friendly neighbor.
He is known around town as a salsa instructor, a Spanish teacher and a dedicated RotaCare volunteer.
He sat on the board of the Mountain View Whisman School District, and his house serves as a day care for local children, who affectionately call him “Papa Juan.” People have told him repeatedly to run for mayor – he’s considering it.
“I’m not the type to be sitting down,” he said modestly.
Long after Aranda had flourished in the sanctuary of citizenship, Col. Dave Hafid learned of Aranda’s brash burst of bravery over a few drinks at a bar. The colonel immediately took it upon himself to write a letter on Aranda’s behalf, informing authorities of his heroism.
“It made my day, but I just put the thought away, in the back of my head,” Aranda said. “I didn’t expect anything to come out of it.”
Then, on April 12, 2012, he received a call from Eshoo, who represents Los Altos, Los Altos Hills and Mountain View.
“I heard on the message someone say, ‘This is Congresswoman Anna Eshoo for Juan C. Aranda Jr.,’” Aranda recalled. “I was flabbergasted. I had waited for this moment for so long, and now I didn’t know how to react. I just remember thinking, ‘Nobody ever calls me that.’”
Although Aranda said he is humbled by and grateful for the public recognition of his act, he still wouldn’t call himself a hero.
“Policemen, firefighters – they’re heroes,” he said. “I don’t consider myself a hero. I was trained, I was a good swimmer and I didn’t think about the consequences. ... My reward was the feeling of his arm when I finally grabbed ahold of it. My reward was the look in his eyes.”