Bakersfield High School teacher and local historian Ken Hooper has taught U.S. history to countless students. But when they become seniors, they learn to dig even deeper in the veteran educator's archiving classes.
Hooper teaches his seniors how to mine old newspaper archives, U.S. census documents, a Find A Grave website, genealogy services, the Los Angeles Public Library's online site and more.
Why does it matter?
Hooper's archiving students have long been involved in researching information that may be etched into glass panels at the Kern Veterans Memorial on Truxtun Avenue.
In 2011 the names of more than two dozen servicemen killed in action during World War II were etched in the Wall of Valor without knowing their hometown or branch of service, Hooper said. His students looked in 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2016 — without much luck.
In spring 2019, they tried again and information started popping. Not only have the students found branches of service and hometowns of several World War II vets whose names are etched on the Wall of Valor, they have found names that have not been etched at all — but should be.
"Since 2011, we've etched eight new names on the Wall of Valor," Hooper said.
But nobody said it would be easy. Hitting a brick wall is not uncommon for the young researchers.
BHS senior Roxana Banuelos was getting nowhere in her research into local serviceman Alfredo B. Arias. Arias was born in Mexico, crossed the border and joined the U.S. Army, only to lay down his life for his adoptive country.
"I had given up," Banuelos recalled of her early research. "I told Mr. Hooper, 'I'm tired. I'm done.'"
Hooper showed little sympathy.
"Are you Bataan Death March tired or going around the world to fight Nazis tired?" Hooper asked her.
"That's cold, Mr. Hooper," she said.
Maybe, but Banuelos got busy anyway.
"We knew in 2011 that he was from Mexico, but we didn't know what his hometown was," Hooper said of the immigrant soldier.
Leaving incomplete information on the etched-glass monument in Bakersfield's downtown is not acceptable — not when the information is out there somewhere waiting to be found, said Hooper, who is also the historian for the Kern Veterans Memorial Foundation.
Banuelos' ability to read and speak both Spanish and English enabled her to pore over documents from the 1930 Mexican census. Arias' hometown turned up in her search. It turned out to be Tendeparacua, a tiny village in the state of Michoacan.
The young researcher was thrilled with her find.
"It's a good feeling to know I could help," Banuelos told The Californian. When his information is etched on the wall, she said, "people will see that he was from Mexico."
According to Hooper, some 200,000 Mexican citizens fought in the U.S. armed forces during World War II, so Arias was one of a great many Mexican immigrants who fought to save democracy.
Anthony Lopez, a 17-year-old senior, found the hometown for Bakersfield native Lawrence Carter. Manuel Gutierrez, 18, located the hometown for Carl L. Curtis, whose name is on the wall, but his hometown of Roswell, N.M., is not.
BHS senior Johan Carbajal, 17, admitted that he didn't care much at first about digging up information on local men who have been dead for 75 years. They seemed far removed from the world he inhabits.
"But once I started working on it, I started to like it," Carbajal said.
He helped discover, by examining a draft registration card, that former Bakersfield resident turned soldier Donald G. Chong lived at 2216 K St., near Bakersfield's old Chinatown.
"We believe Chong was killed in Alaska," Hooper said. "His date of death — May 29, 1943 — was the eve of the last Japanese bayonet charge on Attu Island."
Part of the Aleutian Islands Campaign, it was the only land battle of World War II fought on the continental United States.
This is heady stuff for a teenager.
Much of the students' research will end up etched permanently in glass at the local memorial.
"I feel kind of proud," said Isaiah Torres-Ludd, who Hooper said went "above and beyond" in his efforts to find hometowns and branches of service for men whose entries on the wall are incomplete.
"Something needed to be done," the teen researcher said. "I feel like this work needed to be done. And I'm just doing my job."