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War & Locale: World War II -- European Theater
Date of Birth:
Rea Ann Trotter
By Mayella Gonzalez
Tony Olivas' mother always told him and his brothers during World War II not to volunteer for the Army -- to wait until they were drafted.
"Don't volunteer. Let them come after you," Olivas recalls his mother saying around the time political and military tensions were running high between the United States and Japan, and Washington was warning military commanders to be on guard throughout the Pacific.
Nonetheless, the attack on Pearl Harbor was unexpected. The last moments of peace the U. S. would know for the next three years, eight months and eight days took place before 7:55 a.m. on Dec. 7, 1941, when the first Japanese bombs fell on the island.
"I didn't think it [World War II] was going to start until Pearl Harbor," Olivas said. "Then everybody knew right away."
Olivas was only 20 years old when he was drafted by the military in March of 1943, following close behind his older brothers Joe and Paul, who were drafted on February and June of 1942, respectively. Having quit school after the eighth grade, Olivas had been laboring for a quarter an hour on farms, hoeing and toping beets and working in the hay.
He soon became a soldier in the 5th Army, serving in the 2d Forward Observer Battalion. As a forward observer, his job was to be one of the first men on the field so he could lay the telephone lines. These lines were used to communicate with the artillery, who would direct fire at the enemy until their target was hit.
Olivas -- who was trained for the 105 Howitzers, which towed weapons with a barrel length of more than 2 meters and required a crew of at least eight members to work and fire it -- recalls his first battle experience, as an observer in San Piedro, Italy.
"Well, it was kind of scary. You could hear the shells ... you could hear them," he said. "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," Olivas said. "You automatically hit the ground."
The battle he recalls most vividly, however, is the two-month-long Battle of Cassino, also in Italy, where a river was the only thing that stood between the Americans and Germans.
"We couldn't take it," 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, moist weather. 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.
Olivas recalls losing many fellow soldiers at the Battle of Anzio.
With no time to mourn the fallen, the survivors pushed on through France in June of 1944, and eventually ended up in Luxembourg, where the Battle of the Bulge would soon begin.
The Battle of the Bulge, which lasted from Dec. 16, 1944, to Jan. 25, 1945, was the largest battle of World War II in which the U.S. participated. It started as a surprise attack by three German armies, whose goal was to trap four allied armies in the forested Ardennes region of Eastern Belgium and Northern Luxembourg. In snow and below-freezing temperatures, the Germans didn’t achieve their goal and only created a "bulge" in the American line. Many men were lost on both the American and German sides.
In these sub-zero temperatures, the dead bodies of the GIs and Germans were left frozen on the battlefield. Some men would take their food onto the battlefield and use these dead men as chairs.
"They'd go up and sit on them and eat," Olivas said.
Many of the soldiers seemed like they didn’t know what was taking place around them, and kind of wandered due to battle fatigue. They would be taken to a hospital, where they received treatment and 24 hours of sleep; however, they were sent out to battle again once they woke up.
Olivas was unsure as to whether this method was effective.
"They just couldn't take it anymore," said Olivas, who watched many of his friends and fellow soldiers fall. The worst of these losses came at the Battle of Cassino and Battle of the Bulge, he said.
Grieving for those men who died in battle was difficult – not because of a lack of sadness, but because there simply wasn’t time to think about them, Olivas said.
Despite his busy schedule, he managed to find a few moments to get himself together and reunite with his brother Paul, who was also fighting in the war.
"Every time I'd see [his] outfit on the trucks, I'd start looking for him, or he would start looking for me," Olivas said.
Through this process, he and Paul managed to meet three times during the war, once in Salerno, Italy, and then again in France. However, it was the meeting in Germany he treasures most. His sergeant gave him a ride to visit Paul’s camp in Munich, and, in turn, Paul was allowed to spend a day at Olivas' camp in Augsburg.
During these excursions, Olivas saw people who’d been maddened by the war and the troubles they’d seen. He tells a story about a person who would see the wounded and begin laughing uncontrollably. This same soldier was also known to walk across the battlefield toward his own camp while the enemy was shelling, even stopping momentarily to bend down and pick up a handful of snow to eat.
The war allowed soldiers to have experiences that many would never deem possible. These stories are few, however, because soldiers didn’t want to talk about the disturbing ordeals they’d been through.
"They [people back home] didn't ask too many questions. I guess they figured you didn't want to talk about it," Olivas said. "But for a long time afterwards, I'd hear a loud noise and I'd go down."
These traumatic experiences brought about a change in his attitude. He was unable to kill any more animals, even though it had been a common occurrence when he worked on the farm with his father.
After living through and experiencing WWII, the only recommendation he has for young people today is to strive for peace, because war is devastating and can only cause pain, he said.
"I would like that. Peace in the world, the whole world," Olivas said.
Mr. Olivas was interviewed in Avondale, Colorado, on December 15, 2000, by Rea Ann Trotter.