It's not very often that a filmmaker gets an opportunity to film portions of his own father's early life. I was given that chance recently at the end of December, just a few weeks ago. My producers; Fiona and Justin Hall and I had been talking for several years about filming two re-enactment scenes for CREW 713. The first is the 30th missions completed for the entire crew. The second is the more personal story of what happened after the crew returned to the continental United States in late 1944.
Sometime around Early September of 1944, my father was back in the United States. He was given a 30 day furlough and returned home to El Paso for an extended visit. I'm sure his family was happy to see him home. The newspapers were filled daily with stories of killed and missing military personnel and they must have had many sleepless nights wondering if Nemesio was ever going to come home again. (Alive, that is). His crew beat the odds of flying deadly combat missions in the European Theater of Operations. In 1944, the average mission life span of a heavy bomber crew was about 12 missions. With a little bit of luck, O'Sullivan's boys completed a 30 mission combat tour and were sent home as their reward for a job well done. Sometime during this 30 day furlough, my father and several of his siblings made several trips to the nearby Holy Mountain, Mt. Cristo Rey. He had made a vow to God that if his crew was spared, he would climb the Holy Mountain 30 times. 30 times for 30 missions. And that's exactly what he did.
Mt. Cristo Rey had been newly christened just 4 years earlier. Urbici Soler was the artist who built the massive statue of Christ the King at the peak of the mountain. The statue and monument itself were the vision of a local priest, Monsignor Lourdes F. Costa. Since 1933, he had dreamed of a statue to grace the peak of the mountain. Seven years later, his dream became a reality.
Soler handpicked 40 tons of limestone from the quarries near Austin, TX. The blocks were then shipped to El Paso via train and then hauled up the rough mountain trail by either mini-tractors or by mule teams. It was tough going. Soler himself worked on the sculpture from daybreak to sundown, often sleeping at the base of the peak and then rising in the morning to continue his work. Work started in April of 1939 and was completed in October of the same year. The statue was dedicated on Oct 29, 1939.
September? October? I'm not sure. But after talking with surviving family members, it's a reasonable guess that my Dad climbed that mountain sometime in the Fall of 1944. Often, he would climb with his older brother, Candelario. On these occasions, they would be accompanied by their younger sister, Rafaela. She would wait for them at the base of the mountain and then when they returned, she would have sandwiches and water to refresh them. Then they would do it again in the afternoon. (The trail itself is a tough, wandering lane using switchbacks to cut back across the mountain, all the time slowly ascending the peak. I've climbed it. It takes a good two hours to climb, and another two hours to descend. It will beat you up). Other times, he went with one of his younger brothers, Jesus. Uncle Chuy related to me in 2016 that once they climbed the mountain SEVEN times in one day. I was astounded. But then think about it. My Dad would have been 20, perhaps 21 years old. Jesus would have been 12, 13 years of age. Both of them young men, full of energy. Uncle Chuy says that sometimes they didn't follow the trail, but just went straight up the mountain's side! Well, I guess the objective is 30 climbs to the top-no one said you had to follow the twisting trail! Nonetheless, Nemesio Mena made a vow to climb that Holy Mountain 30 times. Giving thanks to his creator for sparing him and his crew for 30 missions. I would call that a fair trade-off.
My producers and I had made a trip to El Paso in March of 2016. We climbed the mountain during that visit and also interviewed Chuy and Faila for our film. So, the idea had been percolating for three years.
We finally made the decision to film the re-enactment scenes this past Summer. A chance email from a filmmaker in El Paso helped us locate a crew. This was through an association with my sister Barbara, who also lives in El Paso. We then placed a casting call with an El Paso Actors Facebook page and were soon receiving headshots and resumes from potential actors to portray my Dad, my Uncle Candelario and my Aunt Faila. (Thanks to my friend, Sheril Guerrero Rodgers, for the excellent casting advice). We settled on Alex Refaeian to portray my Dad. Valerie Santos was chosen to portray my Aunt Faila, and Robert Deets was chosen for my Uncle Candelario. A running 1937 Chrysler Royal 4 door sedan was provided by El Paso Antique Car Rental and Carlos Marquez and his son, Carlos Jr. We were hosted by a volunteer group of men and women who patrol the mountain on rugged jeeps and who look out for bandits who may try to rob an unwary tourist. Special thanks to Rosario Bustillos and Nick Castanon with the Sierra de Cristo Rey Restoration Association. And thanks to the Catholic Diocese of Las Cruces, NM and Mr. Juan Moreno who gave us permission to shoot on the mountain. And MOST IMPORTANTLY, thanks to my sister Maria for allowing Justin and I to crash at her place for 3 nights. You helped us tremendously with savings on hotel costs and when you're making an independent film, every dollar counts! Thanks Sis!
It was a beautiful, but very cold day at the mountain, but we powered through and managed to capture some wonderful moments for our film. That morning Rosario informed us that the entire mountain was closed off for our use. How many people can say they had an entire mountain to film on? What a blast! The footage was outstanding and we'll be able to weave this sub-story throughout the unfolding story of CREW 713 and the history of the 492nd Bomb Group. 76 years ago, my father climbed that Holy Mountain 30 times. And now we have captured those moments on film. That was something. We're getting closer to completing ACT I of CREW 713. I know it's taken us longer than we ever expected, but we're getting closer. Talk soon.