War & Locale: World War II -- Pacific Theater
Date of Birth:
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By Antonio Gilb
Over half a century after it happened, Carlos Guerrero remembers the incident in May 1945 clearly - because of what it symbolized about America's racial tensions, as well as because of what it said about how communication can solve problems.
The incident happened like this: Guerrero's 65th Infantry Division was liberating a Nazi concentration camp in Germany. But the platoon sergeant had too much to drink that day and was acting like it. He was acting rowdy, and provoked an African-American major, calling him a "nigger."
The infuriated major pulled out his 45 and aimed the gun at the platoon sergeant.
"I'm going to kill you," the major threatened.
Guerrero, standing only feet away from an impending disaster, interjected.
"I'm not trying to be unrespectable," Guerrero pleaded and appealed to the major. "But he's a little bit tipsy, a little bit drunk. I don't think you'll accomplish anything killing him, we're fighting in the same war here for the same cause."
Just in case the major did not agree with the logic, Guerrero had another strategy.
"Why don't we get through this war? And why don't you get his phone number or address? And after that, you can go kill him. But don't kill him here, because we need him."
Cooler heads prevailed thanks to Guerrero. Recalling the story 55 years later, in South Austin, where Guerrero lives with his brother's family, Guerrero said he appreciated the major for listening.
"I'll never forget that, because I saved his life," he said, referring to the platoon sergeant.
Following his return to the United States, instances of racism caused the young Guerrero to harbor doubts as to why he served his country in World War II.
In another instance, in the 1950s, a waiter refused to serve him in Sam Best Cafe in Round Rock. Guerrero, at the time, was working for the civil service as a driver for General K. L. Berry, of the National Guard.
When Guerrero informed Berry of the refusal, the general threatened to shut down the cafe. The cafe gave in. Beyond the denseness of discrimination, Guerrero fails to comprehend the logic of business turning down customers.
"What the hell did I fight for?" Guerrero said he wondered then. "Well, nothing it didn't change discrimination and it's still here, and I guess it will be here till the end of time."
Yet Guerrero never permitted prejudice to shatter his faith in the United States. Discrimination is not American, Guerrero said, and some people do not know any better. Allowing the prejudice to anger or embitter you helps no one, Guerrero said.
"I wasn't mad. I was disappointed. Getting mad ain't going to help."
Today, Guerrero's reason for fighting in World War II is undeniable.
"For my freedom, because America is beautiful," he said. "I served for the freedom of the United States of America."
Today, Guerrero lives with his brother Louie's family: Louie, wife Delores, daughter Alisa, and Bo, the family poodle who barks at the sound of a knock at the door.
Guerrero comes from a military family. His uncle served in World War I and grandmother had 27 grandsons in World War II.
"There ain't too many grandmothers like that," he said.
Guerrero had one brother in the Korean Conflict and two other brothers were in the Air Force but never fought in war. Guerrero's nephew is stationed in Fort Hood, Texas, the same fort Guerrero served in 1948, the year Babe Ruth died, Guerrero added. Guerrero had two brothers who fought in World War II.
"All of us enlisted," said Guerrero, of his brothers. "We didn't know what a draft card was."
Guerrero said he believes in his country because "there are a lot of opportunities. We're likable people, we care for each other. We're in heaven here, and we don't realize it."
Guerrero was born on June 4, 1922, in Lockhart, Texas. His parents farmed cotton. As a kid, he lived on a farm with his six brothers and two sisters. The family picked cotton from July until Christmas. The last year Guerrero attended school was in 1936 in the 4th grade.
"If I had an education, I'd retired as a colonel." He said. "But no, if you ain't got no education that dog ain't gonna hunt."
Growing up, Guerrero play "ragball" - baseball, but using a rag as the ball. Guerrero played baseball throughout his life, and he played from Mexico and Nuremberg, Germany, at the time of the trials. He is a fan of baseball and kept track of the score in National League Championship Series on the day of the interview. His favorite team is anybody, just "not the Yankees."
Following the war, Guerrero served for the National Guard as the only minority in the unit. The members of the National Guard unit initially would not talk to him, on account of his being Mexican-American. But as unit members got to know Guerrero as a person, they became friends. Guerrero was the best cook in the unit; people liked him for that as well.
"I was a go-getter," Guerrero said, laughing, when asked to describe himself in his 20s. "Like Will Rogers used to say, "I never met a person I didn't like, communicate or like."
Guerrero retired from the civil service in on June 11, 1977 and from the National Guard in 1982. He married twice.
"All I could say, when I wake up and I see light, I thank God because God gave me another day," he said. "I'm 77-years-old, but I enjoyed every minute of my life."
He spends a lot of his retirement watching soap operas "you can't beat that with a stick." Guerrero also enjoys going to 6th Street bars, where he is known as Charlie Brown. When he wears his World War II veterans hat people ask people ask if is he is indeed a World War II veteran. When he answers yes, people hold him in high esteem.
"Hey, I'll buy you a beer," they say. "You earned it."
On the day of the second interview, Guerrero was looking forward to wearing his World War II hat in Austin's Veterans Day Parade and meeting fellow veterans.
"Anywhere I go, what I do, I like to make friends or acquaintances with people," he says. "You might see [them] again, because you never know."
Guerrero regrets nothing about his life. He fondly remembers time spent working on fences with his father, and would like his three sons to time spent at their football and baseball games.
"I'm a lucky person, anybody can tell you. I'm not bragging," he said. "No bragging, just facts."
Mr. Guerrero passed away on March 2, 2004.