Latino Vet Stories, Day 3
Latino WW2 Vet stories from the Pacific and Italy, in keeping with The War’s third episode, “A Deadly Calling.” Taking Tarawa island in the Pacific and fighting in Italy at Anzio and Monte Cassino, here are some highlights from the US Latinos/Latinas & WWII Oral History Collection.
Joseph Alcoser concentrated on getting a good education, but then volunteered for the service when he was a senior in high school.
“I never thought about returning home,” he said. “I thought we were sent off to die.”
Consequently, Joe did not communicate very much with anyone back home while he was overseas. He sent only one letter to his mother.
“If anything happened to me, my family would find out,” he said.
“The scariest battle for me was the midnight battle at Surigao Straight,” he said. It was dark and we could only see shells flashing by the ship. The unknown was what caused great fear.”
The battle that occurred near Tarawa Island, an island east of New Guinea, had a lasting effect on Joe as well.
“That is where I saw the most dead,” he said. “Some marines never made it to shore. There were bodies floating all over the water.”
Constant fear of death and the unknown eventually took its toll on the crew of the ship. There was no counseling available on the ship and nervous breakdowns were not uncommon. Joe’s first experience with death came when he and some fellow crewmembers found a man who committed suicide by hanging himself. The inequalities of the land he left also found their way on board the Maryland. [Read More]
Eloy Baca recalls the war and the senses of war. The stench, and the sounds. He was at Salerno (Sicily) and Anzio.
Mr. Baca said what seemed like days passed as the assault landing continued, but it was really one long day later when an officer came up to him.
“He told us “You and you and you, you come back with us on the truck.’ And what we had to do is pick up dead GIs from the battlefield and bring them back. And I did that for about a week. You know, in July in Sicily, it’s hot-hot. The bodies decompose very easily. And I’m telling you it was so rough there. It’s the worst smell you can smell. I couldn’t eat for about a week.”
Mr. Baca paused and reflected for a moment, thinking about how some memories disappear, others remain vivid, and some are repressed and emerge once the conversation begins.
“I remember we were running and I‘d seen guys running and they stumbled, it looked like they were stumbling. But they didn’t stumble, they were shot, you see,” Mr. Baca said, he turns away and his voice cracked with emotion.
“But you know, when you’re a unit, like you feel kind of safe, you’re a unit. There’s a lot of people with you. It’s not really that bad. You think having all these people with you you’re much safer,” Mr. Baca said. “It’s like a family.”
He participated in the initial amphibious assault in Italy, at Salerno, on Sept. 20, 1943, and against Anzio on Jan. 22, 1944. That battle memory reminds him of Anzio and heavy German artillery.
“You could hear it fire and then you could hear it like a freight train coming,” he said. “If you hear that artillery piece, it probably went through. The one that’s going to hit you you’re not going to hear it,” he said. [Read More]
Tony Olivas developed the duck! battle instinct in Italy, and he recalls trench foot, a scourge of the prolonged battle at Anzio.
Mr. Olivas recalled his first battle experience.
“Well, it was kind of scary. You could hear the shells…you could hear them. And the airplanes would come in and raid…come in and throw bombs…it was kind of scary.”
This fear was hard to cope with, he said. Some would try to laugh about it, but others would start shaking the moment they heard a noise.
“You know, after you’re in for a while, you hear a noise and you hit the ground right away,” Mr. Olivas said. “You automatically hit the ground.”
Despite the fear, he made it through his first battle experience at San Piedro, Italy, as an observer. But the battle he recalls most vividly is the two-month Battle of Cassino, also in Italy, where a river was the only thing that stood between the Americans and the Germans.
“We couldn’t take it,” Mr. Olivas said. “The river was right there and we couldn’t cross it.”
He remembers directing artillery to fire across the river blindly and receiving return fire from the Germans. In the end, the Americans had to go around the area because it was booby-trapped.
After this battle, the 5th Army went on to the Battle of Anzio, in Italy, where many suffered from what was called trench foot, a disease that occurs during near freezing temperatures with the presence of moisture. This ailment would cause the feet to swell and appear red and blistered, triggering severe pain until nerve and tissue damage would cause numbness in the feet. [Read More]
Related: See similar stories from the Veterans History Project that coincide with The War, Episode 3.