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War & Locale: World War II -- European Theater
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By Alexandra Ritchie
Frigid nights out in the snow. Soldiers huddled together for warmth, exposed to the elements and at the mercy of German firepower. Mangled bodies of half-dead soldiers screaming, "Medic, medic!" into the dark. For more than 40 years, these memories have haunted John Rubalcava, who lost countless friends on the battlefield of Europe during World War II.
"You feel terrible when you see your friends get killed," Rubalcava said. "It's something that hits you in the stomach and stays with you."
Despite the trauma of these losses, Rubalcava, who served under Gen. George S. Patton in the 95th Victory Division from 1942 to 1945, believes it was a war worth fighting.
He thinks the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 by the Japanese was a legitimate point of entry for the United States, but is ashamed of the U.S.’ treatment of Japanese Americans in internment camps and the U.S. bombing of Japan in August of 1945.
As an infantryman traversing Europe from England to Germany in the European theatre, he fought alongside many other Mexican Americans who felt obliged to fight for their country and their families.
"I was from the United States, so I figured that was our war," he said.
Rubalcava, like many other Mexican Americans who participated in the war, brought home a Purple Heart and Combat Badge after he was "honorably wounded in action" by shrapnel near the Saar River in Germany. He received the badge in January of 1945 after he was hospitalized in the U.S. for surgery on his face.
Dismissing the significance of the medal as a keepsake for his grandchildren, he reminisces about all of the other soldiers who weren't as fortunate.
"The true heroes are buried underground," he said.
Seventeen Mexican Americans earned the prestigious Congressional Medal of Honor, the highest commendation bestowed on soldiers during WWII.
Rubalcava said for many Mexican Americans, wartime represented an opportunity to establish their reputation as valiant fighters and patriotic citizens.
Gen. Douglas MacArthur was so impressed with the toughness of the pachucos, or Mexican American teenagers associated with street gangs from Los Angeles, that he drafted them into his service in the Southwest Pacific area, according to Rubalcava.
"They weren't scared," he said of the pachucos. "They attacked and they didn't back down."
The San Diego native, who was born to Mexican immigrant parents in 1924, said he felt a surge of both national and cultural pride when he was drafted in 1942. He relayed his wartime experiences from his home of 18 years in Chula Vista, Calif.
"I tried to volunteer, but I had bad eyes, so I got turned down by both the Army and the Navy," he said.
The community of Logan Heights, Rubalcava's predominantly white neighborhood, was mobilized by a radio announcement of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor to defend itself against an imminent Japanese bombing. The city instructed them to heed the strategic "black outs" by rolling down their shades and turning off all the lights at night, as the servicemen stationed at the local naval bases scrambled to camouflage the city. Rubalcava said this fueled excitement about going to war among Mexican American youth.
"Maybe we were poor and didn't have the money, but everybody wanted to go," he said, explaining that war offered an escape from the strains of growing up a minority in the era of the Great Depression.
Many of the outfits sent to Europe, North Africa and the Pacific were comprised of Mexican Americans from the same or neighboring cities. Many of these friends, considered too small to be a firefighter, policeman or immigration officer, volunteered or participated with the hope of coming home a hero. They strengthened their ties during the rigors of boot camp and the anxious moments before debarkation, and fortified their faith while serving overseas.
Despite the racism they experienced at home, Mexican American and Anglo soldiers forged a unique bond and brotherhood under the perilous circumstances of war.
"I was treated real good," Rubalcava said. "They figure you're like a brother, but their lives depend on you, and yours depends on them. You take care of each other."
Soldiers on the front lines rarely were in direct contact with high-ranking officers, and those they did meet, except Gen. George S. Patton, were reluctant to harass or discriminate against a soldier in wartime, Rubalcava said.
"Officers were nice because they're scared you're going to shoot them," he said, adding that one captain, who was particularly lenient, allowed his unit to sing and play guitar.
Gen. Patton, known to his men in the 3rd Army as "Old Blood-and-Guts" for his ruthlessness in the European and Mediterranean theatres, was the exception, Rubalcava said. Patton drew criticism from his superior officers when he struck a hospitalized, shell-shocked soldier in Italy in August of 1993 and instilled new fear in his troops.
But Rubalcava credited the 95th and 90th Divisions' unprecedented victory at Metz to Patton's no-nonsense leadership.
"Patton was kind of tough, but he was a good soldier," he said. "If you're with a guy like that, he saves your life."
The capture of the heavily fortified German town, whose defenses had withstood many a war, earned the men the divisional citation as "The Bravest of the Brave," according to Rubalcava.
"They didn't think anybody could do it," he said. "Today, you can take anything you want with the firepower that's available."
The thrill of the overseas adventure wore off as soldiers were subjected to grueling defensive tactics and surprise attacks by enemy forces. The routine of attacking and firing a rifle, as well as hiding for hours on end in cold, dank trenches, took its toll on their morale.
"Every day I hoped the war would end," he said. "I didn't want to die at 19 years old."
He said the worse feeling he experienced was when he stepped on some dead Germans that were under the snow. He said he stepped gingerly around them, fearing they might be booby-trapped.
"Those Germans were very smart people," he said. "They warned you [that] if you went for souvenirs, that you might fall into a trap."
War was a far cry from his boyhood dreams of saving lives as a fireman. He relied on constant prayer to get him through the seemingly endless days of fear, homesickness and fatigue.
The pangs for home were strongest when he was alone, thinking about his young pregnant wife, Hortensia, who later gave birth to his son John, as well as longing for a taste of one of his mother's savory traditional meals.
"My mother was a good cook; we often had albondigas (meat balls), pozole (a hominy dish), menudo (tripe stew) and enchiladas, and I kind of missed them," he said.
His mother, Marta Carolina Rubalcava, provided the family's emotional support during the Great Depression and World War II. She and her husband, Rufino Arnoldo Rubalcava, had six boys and five girls. The couple would often work up to 12 hours at day -- she as a cleaner at Van Camp Fish Cannery and he as a molder at Barth Foundry in San Diego -- to ensure their children were fed.
The family's survival depended upon the cooperation and resourcefulness of all its members. Emma, who was one of the eldest, made breakfast, lunch and sometimes dinner for all of the kids she sent to school everyday. Rubalcava did his part as a paperboy, whose route covered about a 2-mile radius and brought in $21 a month. The rest of them got by with donations of powdered milk from the Salvation Army, and by patching up old pants, shoes, and underwear made from flour sacks.
By comparison, the Rubalcavas were doing quite well during a period of job scarcity, with most of the family either working or in school, while thousands Mexican Americans were being pressured under the Repatriation Act to move back to Mexico. Between 400,000 and 500,000 Mexican Americans relocated their families and businesses to slow the deterioration of the U.S. economy in the 1930s and 1940s.
Rubalcava watched the ships leave the Marina from his vantage point on Broadway Street in San Diego.
"I saw the ship down on Broadway when we were sending them back, because I had some friends, and they were waving at me," he said, recalling he was only seven or eight at the time.
He said at that age he was too young to understand the Mexican American struggle for acceptance in the U.S. Mexican Americans who came of age during WWII were confronted with institutional racism: barred from using theaters, restaurants, public parks and swimming pools, and relegated to often inferior segregated schools where they were forbidden to speak Spanish.
As a person of Mexican heritage with a light complexion, he, unlike several of his other friends, could bypass the state segregation laws. Although he was categorized as white on his birth certificate and driver's license, he still felt proud of his Mexican heritage. When some of Rubalcava’s darker friends were turned away at the East San Diego municipal pools while he was allowed in, he decided their friendship was his first priority.
"If my friends didn't go, I didn't go either," he said.
Although many of them are now gone, along with many of their childhood photos, he has committed the faces of each and every one to memory.
After the war, he and fellow World War II veterans had access to higher education and higher-paying jobs under the G.I. Bill, which was a government reward for their service in the war. Rubalcava ended his brief marriage to Hortensia and found a new career as a production controller at the North Island Naval Air Station in San Diego. Several of his friends became active in the Civil Rights Movements in the 1950s and 1960s, finding a forum to contest the discrimination they faced as uninformed children.
Married since 1982 to Emma Cruz Rubalcava, Rubalcava prefers a quiet life, surrounded by his six grandchildren from his two children, John and Martha.
A lifetime member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, he contributes his share toward the legacy of these soldiers, but considers the tragedy of their loss too personal to exploit.
"Sometimes when I see friends and family of those who didn't make it back, it's hard," Rubalcava said. "Sometimes I still break down a little."
Mr. Rubalcava was interviewed in San Diego, California, on September 10, 2000, by Rene Zambrano.