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War & Locale: World War II -- Pacific Theater
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By Frank Trejo
Morris Riojas lived through some of the most horrific and brutal fighting of the Pacific during World War II.
In campaigns from the Solomon Islands to the Philippines, he witnessed countless deaths, both Japanese and allied soldiers, and was himself wounded three times.
"I don't know how I got through it," he said, sitting in the kitchen of the East Austin home he built after returning home from his service in World War II. "You just lived from day-to-day and just prayed a lot."
Riojas, now 78, can still recall in vivid detail much of what he experienced in the Pacific. He remembered the bombings, killing his first Japanese soldier, sleeping on the beach night after night and waking up in water to his chest. But, he adds, that most people today don't really want hear about it. Even his own children don't quite believe his stories of intense combat and the deprivation that Allied soldiers sometimes endured.
Born in Manor, Texas, a small rural community near Austin, Riojas' family, which included three sisters and four brothers, moved to Pflugerville. His father, Jim Riojas, was a blacksmith, and he had bought a shop in Pflugerville.
But in 1932, when he was 10, Riojas' mother died of pneumonia, just six days after giving birth to her last child. She was 32. The siblings were soon taken in by an aunt, back in Manor, who decided she could better care for the young children. Riojas said he received a very basic education, going to school through the sixth grade. And throughout his childhood, work was a necessary part of life, from chopping wood to picking cotton.
He recalled picking cotton or chopping a half cord of wood, for 50 cents a day.
By the time he was 16, Riojas moved to Austin and began working as a delivery boy and then in various restaurants as a busboy. At 19, he met and married Beatriz. But while she was pregnant with their first child, Morris, Jr., the United Stated entered World War II, and Riojas was drafted.
"I guess like most people, I wanted to go," he said. "It was a way to make money. They paid you $21 a month."
After basic training in Brownwood and then Mineral Wells, Texas, Riojas was sent to Camp Roberts in California. He remembered that his pregnant wife once sent him $3 in a letter in case he needed money.
"I put it back in the envelope and I said, 'You keep that money for you, I don't need it,' " he recalled.
Before being shipped overseas, he got leave to visit his infant son, but most of his time off was taken up by train travel and he managed only two or three days with his wife and son. Then in summer of 1942, Riojas joined 6,000 other men crowded onto the USS Harris as they made their way into the Pacific. He served with the U.S. Army's 37th Infantry Division.
His first action was at Guadalcanal, where Japanese guns trained on the arriving boats, and rained tracers on the Allied troops.
"Well, it was kind of scary," said the man who at the time was a 21-year-old who until he got drafted had never even been outside of Texas. "I thought, this must be the end."
But he survived and continued on with troops as they made their way up the Solomon Island archipelago to the Japanese stronghold at Bouganville. That, he said, was the first time he was injured, when a piece of shrapnel slammed into his forehead. The injury, however, was not severe enough for him to get to go home.
He recalled one fight when 250 men went up a hill and only 14 came down unharmed. The rest were either injured or killed.
"There were times when we didn't have no water to drink," he said. "We used to get the grass and chew on it a little bit for the juice. There was nothing to eat."
After the Solomon Islands, Riojas went to the Philippines and Luzon, landing at Lingayen Gulf amid heavy fire from the Japanese. He described landing on the shore and running for his life onto the beach.
After nearly a month at Luzon, he was sent on to Manila, where even more fighting awaited, especially around what he recalls as the "walled city,'' or the old Spanish portion of Manila. He recalled tossing grenades into a building and finding 16 Japanese soldiers dead. He remembered taking a U.S.-made rifle off a dead Japanese soldier and tossing his own away because his was inferior.
"They used to say that for every year you spent in World War II, that was 10 years out of your life," Riojas said. "So I stayed there three years, three months and three days. So I lost 30 years right there."
After his discharge, Riojas returned to Austin and his family. His first job was with the city, in the bridge and street department making 64 cents an hour. But he soon found better paying jobs, including one with a spring company where he worked for 21 years and later as a mechanic for other companies, including B.F. Goodrich and El Galindo, a tortilla factory.
He and his wife had two more boys, but Riojas noted that it was many years between the birth of his first son and his son, and he believes medication he took during the war to prevent malaria affected his ability to have children for a time.
His oldest son Morris Jr., died in 1976 of a brain tumor.
Riojas agrees that he saw more than his share of carnage and killing during his years in the Army. But he does not think all that has had much of an impact on his life.
"I know some guys don't like to talk about it, but it never bothered me," he said. "I came back and just started to work. ... I think maybe it was the way I was raised. Kids today have everything. But us when we were kids, we pretty much had to grow up on our own."
Mr. Riojas was interviewed in Austin, Texas, on May 11, 1999, by Kelli Lambert.