As a member of construction Laborers Union Local 591, Margarito “Mugs” Delgadillo helped build many homes in the Goleta Valley from the 1960s to the ’80s. He emphasized laying and removing concrete — his handiwork is embedded in countless foundations throughout the area — but he mastered multiple construction skills.
Mugs, or “Del” as he is also known, is a slightly built, native Goletan who usually speaks softly and modestly. However, he takes pride in his construction projects. “I had a good reputation for working any job,” he recently told me. He is equally proud of his service as an infantryman during the Korean War, where he was wounded.
“The Korean War is often called the ‘forgotten war,’ and that used to bother me,” he said. “It doesn’t anymore.” The label stuck because the fighting between North and South Korea — the North invaded the South in June 1950, and the ensuing war ceased with an armistice in July 1953 — was officially a United Nations “police action.” Combat halted at roughly the 38th Parallel with no peace treaty. Minefields in a so-called Demilitarized Zone separate the two Koreas today.
This war took an estimated three million lives, most of them Korean and Chinese, but nearly 37,000 were sacrificed by Americans fighting with UN forces.
There are many ways to die in warfare, and Delgadillo, who had volunteered for the Army, often thought he might be listed among those from the 24th Infantry Division who were KIA (Killed in Action). Once a sniper’s bullets barely missed his head, and another time one of his boot heels was shot off while he lay on an exposed ridge firing on Communist Chinese troops.
For many soldiers, the worst way to go is a bullet from your own side, called death by friendly fire. The private first class machine gunner had seen it happen to a fellow infantryman when a mistargeted mortar shell landed on him. So when he and another soldier were on patrol one day and a U.S. warplane dove at them in an apparent strafing run, Mugs took no chances.
“Take off your helmet,” he ordered the tall, very blond soldier.
The pilot must have understood their visual signal because as he flew over he waggled his wings, a gesture that acknowledged they were on the same side.
Delgadillo’s combat duty ended the fall of 1951 in the mountains south of Kumsong, North Korea. His right leg was severely wounded by an enemy hand grenade during Operation Nomad-Polar, one of the “most brutal, most costly” major engagements of the war, military historians write. Ten days of fighting resulted in nearly 1,800 American casualties, including almost 300 dead.
South Korean troops carried Mugs to an ambulance behind UN lines, and he was rushed to a mobile hospital unit where doctors removed most of the shrapnel. He recalls losing a wristwatch and the cash from his wallet around this time, but he now laughs about it as one of the quirks of war. In a military hospital in Tokyo, the young Goletan endured repeated operations to dig out the remaining fragments; therapy helped him learn to walk again. While recuperating there, he received a well-deserved Purple Heart.
After a final tour of duty in West Germany, Delgadillo came home after a three-year enlistment. However, even with help from his family, employment was difficult to find in 1953. He considered re-enlisting in the Army, but then he met and fell in love with Elma, his wife-to-be.
Not long after Elma and Mugs married, the Goleta Lemon Association hired him to drive their fruit-filled trucks. Soon they had a son, Richard, and a daughter, Deborah. Housing was booming in Goleta, and the construction business beckoned. With a family to support, he began at the bottom of the trade and advanced to foreman.
“I lead my life, and I’ve made it so far,” he now says with a chuckle.
At 83 and long retired, he walks around his Winchester Canyon neighborhood almost daily, albeit on reconstructed knee joints. He lends neighbors a hand, watches their homes when they take trips, and until recently mowed his lawn. Late in life, Mugs became involved with area veterans organizations, helping to stage annual benefit barbecues and other activities.
On Veterans Day, it is good to recall what soldiers, like 20-year-old Mugs Delgadillo, underwent and the price they paid and to appreciate their continuing contribution to their communities. At first, Mugs recalled, he had vivid, screaming nightmares so bad Elma had him sleep in another room. Some nights the dreams still haunt him, especially if his damaged leg acts up. “It doesn’t ever completely go away,” he said.
Generally, life is good. He and Elma enjoy their family and the cul-de-sac where they have lived more than 50 years. This month they will celebrate 60 years of marriage. Many a well-wisher will toast their longevity, and some, including my wife and I, will gratefully call them friends and neighbors.