“Geography matters.” Frank Gamboa, a retired Navy captain and a first generation Mexican-American, knows this instinctively. In the opening chapter of his newly-published memoir, ¡El Capitan!: The Making of an American Naval Officer, he describes how his childhood in the small, bucolic town of Lone Pine, California, indelibly influenced his character and the trajectory of his life. His parents, his culture and his education played a pivotal role in his upbringing, but location, location, location was one of the most defining factors.

Situated 200 miles east of the Pacific Ocean and in the shadow of the 14,000-foot Sierra Nevada peaks, the rugged village of Lone Pine is in the middle of the high desert town of Owens Valley. Nicknamed the Land of Little Rain, Lone Pine is thirsty for water from the Pacific. But it does not thirst for community. Frank and his siblings were raised in an enclave of caring, supportive and inclusive neighbors. Surprisingly, during an era of segregation and as a child of immigrants, he claims he didn’t experience racism or exclusion. Although his family was poor, his mother and father were respected as responsible parents and were active participants in community and civic activities. This family involvement bridged the language and cultural differences.

So, when Frank expressed interest in attending the Naval Academy, he was not discouraged. It started with a teacher who had served in the Navy in World War II, Emil Neeme, who enticed him to pursue an appointment to the Naval Academy, which provided a free college education. An older Lone Pine kid had obtained an appointment and graduated from the Naval Academy in 1952, and that community precedent encouraged Frank. He was curious if he had the skills and the drive to attend, but he was a bit self-conscious about his family’s and immigrant community’s lack of education. He wondered if it marked him in some way. But, with the help, advice and encouragement from teachers, his coach, his principal and friends, he organized and galvanized his community’s support, secured the appointment of his elected representative and was selected to attend.

With that decision, Frank Gamboa entered a different world – far removed from Lone Pine, California, and his tight-knit, Mexican-American community. But he thrived and set out on a career and life course very different from his family’s. He successfully graduated from the Naval Academy in the class of 1958, collecting a number of cherished friendships along the way – including that of Sen. John McCain, one of his Academy roommates and still a close friend. He became a surface warfare officer (SWO) and set out on a career of driving ships and leading large crews of men.

Gamboa distinguished himself at sea and attained high ranks in the military throughout his career. During his 30 years on active duty (1958-1988), Captain Gamboa became the first Mexican-American surface warfare officer to command a major warship and the first to command a squadron of amphibious warships.

His book, ¡El Capitan!: The Making of an American Naval Officer, portrays the leadership, management, technical and seamanship skills required to succeed in shipboard billets ranging from division officer to commanding officer and squadron commander, in ranks from ensign to captain. He delves into his professional development as a naval officer and highlights his duties, challenges and opportunities over the course of 17 years of sea duty aboard a variety of ships: destroyers, a cruiser and six amphibious warships operating in the eastern and western Pacific, the Atlantic, and the Mediterranean. Captain Gamboa covered most of the world’s oceans – a long way from Lone Pine, California.

“Effective organizational performance requires two functional components: leadership and teamwork—neither can exist without the other,” according to Captain Gamboa. “Like the two sides of a coin. How leadership is employed and how teamwork is developed depend heavily on the leader’s core values. Mine include treating people with courtesy and respect. I’ve seen leaders treat their people differently, and some use anger and intimidation to get results. That was not my style…I was taught that leadership begins with an individual’s willingness to accept total responsibility, authority and accountability for the performance of duty, the conduct and the well-being of a team.”

Read more about ¡El Capitan! at www.frankgamboa.com. Captain Gamboa and his wife, the former Linda Marie Lehtio, reside in Fairfax, Virginia. He will be reading from and signing his memoir at the Navy Memorial in Washington, DC, on September 15 at noon.


Posted by The Bunny in Books, History

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  • Diogenes of NJ

    In no way do I wish to diminish Captain Gamboa’s life time of accomplishments. However, as we approach the 10th anniversary of the 9-11 attack on all Americans, it is time that we drop the hyphenations.

    We have taken what should be relegated to a footnote and made it a primary focus. In my book, coming from Lone Pine, California – makes you and American. Being born in this country makes you a Native American – by the proper use of the word.

    The real story is that the Navy offered Captain Gamboa the opportunity to succeed (as it did for so many others) and that he was a paramount success. Had he been less successful in his Navy career, perhaps Secretary Ray Mabus would have named a ship after him.


    – Kyon

  • Chap

    I’m with the guy with the lamp on this one. Why is the focus this way? Why denigrate the achievements of the captain by relegating him to the identity group ghetto? Why is “American” not enough?

  • The Bunny

    I appreciate your sentiments. However, I must point out that Captain Gamboa himself made his status — as a Mexican-American who attained several “firsts” in the Navy — a primary focus of his memoir. In fact, these “firsts” are listed right on the cover of his book — and he helped to design the cover! He is very proud of his cultural heritage and has chosen to identify himself in this manner. Sometimes, I think we have to let people self-identify any darn way they want. In my opinion, it gives some depth and context to his background and his story, which is indeed a rich one.
    The Bunny