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War & Locale: World War II -- Other Theaters
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The yellow clapboard house with the 1990 Cadillac Seville parked outside is Lalo Campos' home. A Mexican American World War II veteran, he sits in a study that is covered with family portraits with his feet propped up in his walker. There is a distinct smell of Terra-gesic cream, similar to Ben-Gay, in the air -- which he uses to ease the pain in his feet. Campos has been a diabetic for 20 years and in 1992 the diabetes severed the nerve ends on his feet, which has made it very painful to walk.
Campos has come a long way in 75 years; he has even been around the world.
Born in San Diego, Texas, on Nov. 8, 1924, Campos moved with his to the country where he attended a one-room school. When he was 9 years old his father said to him, "Son, we're moving to town [San Diego] so that you all can go to school. Because in this country only with an education will you be able to get ahead."
The family moved back to San Diego where they lived in a $2.50-a-month, three-room house with a kitchen and dirt floor. Five years later, his father died of double pneumonia at age 55. His mother took up washing and ironing to keep her four sons in school.
Campos remembers going to town one Saturday morning when he was young, shoeshine box in hand, to earn some money to go to the picture show. He came home triumphant, with a nickel that would buy his ticket. All he needed now was another nickel to buy some popcorn. When his mother said she didn't have one, he searched for one in the kitchen cabinets, in cups; anywhere he thought she might have some money. He finally went to his mother's purse and took out the little coin bag; there was nothing inside. In a recent interview, Campos began to cry as he finished the story in his mother's words: "Son, I don't have a nickel. But if I had a nickel, I would gladly give it to you, but I don't have a nickel."
In high school, Lalo Campos would sneak in his school to play basketball with his friends. He was on the football team, basketball team and track team. He was student council president. He graduated in May of 1942 and on July of that same year, he joined the Navy.
"Back then there was a feeling of strong patriotism. The moment the war broke out, everybody was ready to enlist and go fight. We didn't know any better really," said Campos, who was only 17 when he enlisted and had to ask his mother to sign the release forms.
He enrolled in the Navy at Corpus Christi, Texas. He went to boot camp in San Diego, Calif. Then the Navy sent him to school in San Francisco to become a signalman. He learned how to send messages by using semaphore and hillyard flags, blinking light and Morse code.
Campos went around the world on his first trip out at sea aboard the S. S. Alexander Graham Bell. From San Francisco he went to Australia, to New Zealand, to Egypt, to the Suez Canal, to South Africa, then across to South America to Sao Paolo, Brazil, through the Panama Canal and up to New York. He was given route leave when he reached New York.
"They gave you 20 days to go from there to San Francisco and you stopped at home and visited. So when I got to San Diego, Texas, to visit my folks, I completed a complete revolution around the world," he said.
The closest Campos came to combat in his Navy days was when his ship got hit by a torpedo en route to New York from Cuba. He remembers they had been out at sea for as little as a day when the ship took the hit. The general alarm sounded and everybody went to the battle stations. It was finally determined that a dead torpedo had hit the ship. There was no follow-up.
"Generally you didn't get much information because it was top secret and they didn't want it to get out," Campos said.
He traveled aboard merchant ships; belonging to a group called the American Guard Branch of the Navy. The only reason why he had access to information was because as signalman, he had to interact with the captain and send messages to other ships or to shore.
The only thing Campos and the other men knew was that they were carrying cargo from San Francisco to Australia, where the ship was reloaded and sailed for New Zealand. They unloaded and reloaded cargo many times in different places. He served on a tanker transporting oil. "Very dangerous if you get hit," he said. He even transported Army troops from one place to another.
Campos had just returned from six months out at sea when his commanding officer issued a three-day pass. Since his officer made it clear that he wasn't going to call roll on Saturday or Sunday, he actually had five days off. He took a train from Los Angeles, Calif. to San Antonio, Texas. The next day he married his girlfriend, Eloise, whom he had been dating since he was 15. He asked their taxi driver to be their witness at the ceremony.
Campos went back to the Navy while his wife worked in San Antonio. About six months later the war was over and it was time to go home. He and his wife moved to Corpus Christi until it was time for him to enroll at the University of Texas at Austin in 1946.
"I always knew when I was going to high school that I was going to go to college; I was dirt poor... we were dirt poor; and yet, I knew that I was going to go to college but I didn't know how; and then the war broke out," he said. "It seems to me like it was a blessing in disguise. When I got out there was the G. I. Bill... the American G. I. Bill."
Lalo Campos and his three younger brothers attended the University of Texas at Austin through the G. I. Bill. All graduated.
"The G. I. Bill was one of the greatest things that the government could have done for all citizens, but certainly for the Hispanics who went to war and found out that there were better things out there than just what you had at home," Campos said.
One of his brothers was a school principal in Houston, another was a teacher and football coach in Laredo, his youngest brother was a lawyer in San Antonio and Lalo Campos worked as a disk jockey and announcer for 45 years with KVET Radio in Austin.
He did a program called "Noche de Fiesta" where he played Mexican music and read commercials both in English and in Spanish. His boss was former U. S. congressman J. Pickle. In 1972 Campos left the airwaves and continued in sales.
Raising a family was hard for the Campos family; work absorbed most of Lalo Campos' time.
"I was working something like from 5 o'clock in the morning until 1 o'clock in the morning the next day," Campos explained.
Eloise Campos, his wife, took care of their three children. They had one car and Eloise had to take the children by bus to piano lessons, dancing lessons or wherever they had to go. She then went to work and picked them up at the end of the day.
"I don't know how she did it," said Campos of his wife. "I was busy all the time. I had three jobs going on simultaneously. I was trying to get ahead; and it all paid off."
Lalo Campos was married for 52 years. His wife passed away in 1998. He has three children who grew up to be successful and nine grandchildren.
About 12 years ago there was a celebration in San Diego, Texas, in his mother's honor.
"It was in her honor because she had been able to keep the family together and keep the boys together and all four went to college... and it was a big achievement on her part," he said. Campos' mother died in 1978 at age 86.
Campos has achieved many things himself. After serving his country in World War II, he graduated from the University while raising a family and working as many as three jobs at a time. He has been involved with many civic clubs, serving as president for the University Kiwanis Club, and on the Board of Directors for the Red Cross.
"I've served in 15, 20, 30 different organizations with the idea of giving back to the community for the great things that have happened to me," he said.
"It has been an evolution," he says about Hispanics' role in the U. S. "And it has not reached the top. It just needs to continue. It is to continue to evolve and grow... And it will continue because the sons and daughters of those who went through the rough times are all now going to college... The children and grandchildren all are going to college. And so all are preparing themselves to make a better difference, a bigger difference."
Lalo Campos passed away on October 6, 2004.