Korean War Hero 'Mac' Ortiz Enlisted At 17, Was Missing For 70 Years
On this Memorial Day weekend, as we remember the fallen, we ask: Who was Mac Ortiz from Barrio Grenada?
We know that he grew up in one of the San Gabriel Valley's informal work camps that flourished into vibrant communities during segregation. He attended El Monte High School. And he disappeared in the Korean War. His remains weren't returned to the U.S. until 2019.
In the intervening seven decades, his loss created a gaping wound for his family — and those he never got a chance to meet.
Three years after Ysabel "Mac" Ortiz was declared missing in 1950, his brother, Manuel Ortiz, was born. For most of his life, all Manuel knew of Mac were a few photos, including one of him crouching on top of a tank in full uniform, wearing shades.
"He got the nickname of Mac from some cartoon character back in those days," Manuel Ortiz said.
Mac was born October 1, 1931. His family lived in Barrio Grenada, one of several camps where Latinos were forced to live on the outskirts of what was then the farming town of El Monte. Manuel says his brother wanted to join the Army after his parents divorced. He was just 17 years old.
"But he was underage, so his mom signed the documents so he was able to enter into the military," explained Manuel, who shared a father with Mac.
That was 1948. In 1950, Mac was deployed to fight in the Korean War, assigned to an M-19, a small anti-aircraft tank with an exposed cockpit. He barely made it past his 19th birthday.
"As far as we know, our dad would only tell us that they took a direct hit on the tank," his brother said, "and they never found anything."
DNA from Mac's siblings was crucial to eventually identifying his remains. In 2019, 55 caskets containing the remains of American soldiers were returned to the U.S. after former President Trump's summit with Kim Jong Un. The Ortiz family watched it on live television.
"It was so beautiful because … our brother was in one of those 55 that was returned, after 70 years almost," Manuel said, his voice cracking.
Ysabel Arredondo Ortiz, Jr. was buried in Riverside National Cemetery for veterans, and was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart.
In November, a new affordable housing community is scheduled to be opened in El Monte. The community will be named Plaza Ortiz, in Ysabel “Mac” Ortiz’s honor, and provide 53 units of housing for homeless veterans and low-income families. A monument and plaque on the property commemorate his service.
Thanks to La Historia Society Museum in El Monte for connecting us with the Ortiz family for this story.