By Melissa Watkins
Carlos Peña's mother, Natividad, used to say the only time Anglos came around their little farm near San Benito, Texas, was when they needed another football player or when there was a war.
The first happened when "Coach McMillan" from a local high school – Peña doesn't remember his first name – approached the family looking for a player. Young Peña's dad, Fermín, thought football was just a bunch of crazy guys beating each other up, but he left the decision to Carlos, the oldest of his six sons. Peña, then 13, said yes.
Peña still remembers meeting Coach McMillan one afternoon after school for his first day on the playing field.
"I'd never seen a football uniform before that day," said Peña, who had only tossed a football in the fields behind the school.
When he suited up for practice, there was one small problem – his big feet. The school didn't have shoes large enough to fit Peña's size-12 feet. "Coach McMillan made the assistant coach give me his shoes," he recalled.
Then they headed out to the field where Peña was thrown into a game with unfamiliar rules. He was later taken off the junior high team to play with the high school team, which went to the state championship playoffs.
The next time an Anglo came calling at their farm, Peña was 17. He was drafted again – this time for the Second World War.
The Army assigned him to the 24th Infantry Division on Dec. 7, 1943. After passing physical examinations, he was stationed at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas, where his big feet proved once again to be a problem.
"We were marching and for some reason they didn't have my shoe size," Peña said. "A lieutenant caught me and said, 'Young man, why are you in civilian shoes?' I told him they had ordered me some. He told me to go back to the barracks until I had shoes."
Two weeks later he was sent to Camp Shelby in Mississippi, where he completed his basic training in heavy artillery. Even though he'd been pulled from his own high school, Pvt. Peña helped other soldiers complete questionnaires to receive their diplomas through correspondence courses.
"Here were these guys who couldn't read or write getting their diplomas, and I never graduated from high school," Peña said. "They were too ashamed to go to the other gringos."
After being shipped to California for jungle training, Peña boarded a boat for New Guinea with 5,000 other men. Separate services were held on board for Catholic, Protestant and Jewish soldiers, providing Peña an opportunity to learn about other cultures.
The boat landed at Leyte in the Philippines a day after Leyte was invaded. The Japanese were bombing the island. Peña was sent to a different company and assigned to a 12-foot-long gun on wheels. He began shooting over the mountains.
"The Japanese were coming from both sides," Peña said. "They were firing on the beach. The beach was littered with Japanese. I was assigned to the outfit protecting the artillery."
The Japanese retreated after seeing the number of American soldiers.
Peña spent Christmas on the island. "There were no waves. You could walk 1,000 yards out into the sea," Peña said.
Leyte was not the only island where Peña spent time. On Mindanao, an airbase was quickly assembled. The runway was made of sheets of metal laid down and fitted together. Just like learning plays in football, Peña had to learn to avoid being ambushed by Japanese soldiers.
During one such attack, Peña jumped onto a rock to get better aim at two men. After firing a few rounds, he realized the soldiers were decoys: They had been bayoneted and propped up to create a diversion. They were oozing bodily fluids, a sign that they had been dead for a while.
Peña's outfit later found the remains of an airport that had been locked and then set on fire by the Japanese with Filipinos still inside. He witnessed men jump out of airplanes before the planes exploded and crashed in the Philippine countryside. He himself contracted malaria and had his knee ripped open by a motor.
He was put on a boat to recover for almost a month. On board, though, he recognized a familiar face: A man named Pino from his hometown of San Benito was working in the kitchen.
"He would bring sirloin and potatoes to me in bed while the other men had to eat wieners and kraut," Peña said. "They'd complain and ask, 'Why's he getting that and we get this?' Pino would just say, 'Doctor's orders.' He even brought me Napoleon ice cream."
After his release from the infirmary, Peña's outfit began an attack on a building in the middle of the island. His captain had the men retreat quietly, thinking that the Japanese were surrounding them. Suddenly bullets started flying. Somewhere across the vast expanse, guns were firing down the mountains. In an unfortunate mistake, six men in Peña's group lost their lives to friendly fire: American soldiers had fired at and killed their own men.
The day the war was over, Peña awoke with abdominal pains. His appendix had burst, and he received an emergency appendectomy aboard a naval ship. After his recuperation, he was assigned the task of confiscating weapons from Japanese civilians. Peña traveled door to door, taking the weapons of families.
"We'd gather them [weapons] up and take them out and dump them in the middle of the ocean," Peña said. "At one house, I took all the weapons except one. The man begged me not to take it. He said it was for rabbits. He took me out in the field and showed me how he shot these rabbits for food. I let him keep the gun."
Back home from the war, Peña married Ofelia Rodriguez and had one son, John. He worked for L.T. Boswell Ford and sold auto parts for 55 years. He said he never missed a day at work and was never late.
He later received a Bronze Star for his action in the liberation of the Philippines.
Peña, aged 79 at the time of this interview, still had a rifle and a saber he confiscated during the war. His medals and patches were in frames on a wall. He tried on his old green Army jacket, but it wouldn't reach across his shoulders – now much broader. His old shoes would also be too small. He now wears a size 13.
"As I got older, my feet just got bigger," Peña said, evoking peals of laughter from his family in the background.
Mr. Peña was interviewed by Rick Leal in San Benito, Texas, on March 14, 2004.
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U.S. Latino and Latina World War II Oral History Project