Two stories from a Latino WW2 Oral History archive: War in the Pacific

Here are two excerpts from the oral history project that has interviewed Latino World War 2 veterans. A trip through news search engines brings lots of latino response to Ken Burns not-including and then including stories of latinos in The War. I’m less interested in reactions than in the stories themselves. So I’ll dip into one oft-cited oral history archive to find stories that keep with the theme of “last night’s show” for inclusion here.

Today, two stories from the Pacific theatre of war: Bataan death march and being taken prisoner of war by the Japanese.

From the narrative of Philip James Benavides, who served in the Pacific. He was a musician that was part of the Marine Band; he fought on Guadalcanal and Bouganville, and was taken prisoner of war.

Circumstances forced the 9th Marine bandsmen into combat as they headed back to the frontlines to replenish supplies and retrieve the wounded and the dead.

“It was unbelievable. The more we battled,” he said. “I guess you could say you got used to it.”

Hungry and tired, the Marines would eat anything they could scrounge up, including roots and grubworms.

After contracting (and recuperating from) malaria, he went island-hopping again in the Pacific

On Nov. 1, 1943, Staff Sgt. Benavides’ unit landed in Bougainville. As battle ensued, he was on his way to retrieve casualties when a Japanese mortar exploded nearby.

“I only remember flying through the air, and trying to protect myself,” he said. “These banyan trees grow with these huge roots. I hit one of the roots … and that’s the last thing I remembered for three days.”

Since then, he has lost all of the vision in his left eye and he covers it up with a patch. After four weeks of recuperation, Benavides was sent into battle again, this time to the Battle of New Britain in December 1943.

One day, while Gunnery Sgt. Benavides and 11 other men returned to their camp from patrol to find their unit had fled ahead of the Japanese. The Japanese took him and the other men prisoner.

For three months, Mr. Benavides suffered abuse at the hands of the Japanese. In March 1944, the Japanese, hearing noises in the jungle, knew Allied Forces would arrive soon; they began shooting the American prisoners. One Japanese officer put his pistol to Benavides’ head and pulled the trigger twice. Nothing. Benavides, having lost his will to live, showed the Japanese officer that the gun’s clip was not in. The officer snapped his clip in and, again, shot twice. Still nothing happened.

“I was thinking, ‘God’s on my side; I wonder why,’ ” Mr. Benavides recalled. [Read More]

Lorenzo Banegas, from New Mexico, was one of the 1700 New Mexico National Guard taken prisoner at Bataan. 900 from New Mexico died there.

“I was so tired. I was so darn tired that I said I don’t care if I live or die.”

Adolfo Rivera, a friend from his New Mexico National Guard unit, intervened. “If it wouldn’t have been for him, I wouldn’t be here right now,” Banegas said.

“He picked me up. He said, ‘No, Banegas! Come on, let’s go out and put some water on you.’ He took me up there and threw some water on me. I said, “Ooh, gosh, I feel a lot better now.”

“And then when he saw that I looked up again, he said, ‘Come on, let’s sing us a song!’ And he started singing this song:

“Cuando se quiere deveras, como te quiero yo a tí·”
(When one loves truly, the way that I love you·)

It was a love ballad both had sung as boys in New Mexico.

“Golly, every time I hear that song·”
Banegas said. He burst into tears.

Rivera died in Japanese captivity. [Read More]

The U.S. Latino and Latina WWII Oral History Project is run out of the University of Texas, Austin. The project continues to seek volunteers and contributions.

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Posted by Susan A. Kitchens on September 24, 2007 in • Online Oral History CollectionsOral History ProjectsVeterans History Project
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