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Esteban Soto

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Categories: Post War Service

War & Locale: World War II -- Pacific Theater

Date of Birth:
09-02-1925
Interviewed by:
Rea Ann Trotter
Military Unit:
No Service Branch available for this record.

No photos available for this record.



By Vanessa Adams

Esteban Soto is part of the second generation of veterans in his family. He remembers his father, a World War I veteran, telling stories of mustard gas and other horrors of the war. Little did Soto know, he too would witness these experiences himself -- in three different wars: World War II, Korea and, finally, Vietnam, a conflict in which his sons also fought.

"I feel very proud," he said. "How does a father help sons when they come home? First by thanking God for a safe return home and talking to them that they had a job to do ... We did what we had to do."

Soto, a Dallas native, has devoted considerable time to public service, teaching school children about the various wars, organizing a veterans club and teaching senior citizens to speak English.

"My feelings are very positive, nothing comes easy," Soto said. "If it's easy, it's not worth it."

One incident, during the Korean War, lingers: In April of 1945, in the Chonan area of South Korea, Soto and Cpl. David Dykes came upon a Korean girl near a village that had been destroyed. The girl was covered with debris.

"I checked around her for booby traps," he said in a note he wrote after being interviewed. "I talked to her in Korean, Iriwa (Come here)," Soto said. "She was scared and dirty ... I then took her in my arms and took her to my captain.

“He said, 'What am I going to do with her?'

“I said, 'You want me to kill her?'

“Nothin' [was] said. She stayed with us a few days. An old papasan took her to his house."

To this day, he wonders what became of the girl and dreams about her.

"If you can print this, maybe I can get some action," he wrote.

Born in Royce City, Texas, on Sept. 2, 1925, Soto grew up with four brothers and three sisters in the Dallas area. By age 7, he was picking cotton.

"My quota was 100 pounds of cotton when I was 7 years old. I chopped cotton for 50 cents all day," Soto recalled. "I never knew what being a boy was. Hard work."

There were other tasks: planting onions for 10 cents a row, tending mules and chickens, milking cows, chopping wood and churning butter.

His maternal grandfather told stories about dragons, kings and queens, and they played a game, El Coyote y Las Gallinas (The Coyote and The Hens), "like chess, where you trap the coyote with 12 hens," Soto explained.

There was affection as well as respect for the older generation.

"I used to kiss my elders in the hand," Soto said.

There was a strong military tradition in his family: One uncle, Emilio Salazar, had been a captain in the Mexican Army, his brother and brother-in-law in the U.S. Air Force and his cousins in the Army. Soto would follow in their footsteps at 18, serving as a "selected volunteer" for WWII.

"In those days, the officers in charge told us where to go and no questions asked," Soto said.

His first tour of duty lasted from Dec. 17, 1943, until April 20, 1946. He rode a troop train from San Antonio to San Diego, window shades rolled down and two people to a bed. He reported to boot camp in Company 577, standing 5'4" and weighing 113 pounds.

During boot camp in San Diego, leaders kept the young soldiers so busy they had no time for nonsense.

"During the training, I developed malaria and ear problems and I was at Balboa Hospital with both of my ears [ear drums] perforated, but I finished training," Soto recalled.

He was sent to sea on the USS Comet in early March of 1944. They were in enemy waters by the second day at sea. He and others unloaded some Marines whose faces looked yellow because they were seasick, but Soto says he was only sick for a couple of days.

"Lucky for me, I got off just in time. The Comet was sunk, no survivors," he said.

Later, he would work as a guard at Pearl Harbor. Then, in April of 1946, he was honorably discharged at Camp Wallace, Texas, receiving a Navy PUC (Presidential Unit Citation), Asiatic American Theatre Medal and Victory Medal.

"We were united to one common purpose in WWII: to end the war," Soto said.

He joined the Navy Reserve, worked on the New York Central Railroad and married Leonor Gutierrez in 1947. In June of 1948, he joined the US Army 2nd Armored "Hell on Wheels" 41st Armored Infantry Battalion. He would be there in time to fight in what would be the first military clash of the Cold War, the battle between Communist countries and US affiliates. The Korean Conflict would last from 1950 to 1953.

"Korea was never heard of, all we knew was to go to combat and help to stop the Communist aggression," Soto said. "... When we got to Japan, we had 300 or 400 South Korean soldiers [Republic of Korea Army, or ROKAs] waiting on us."

The terrain was very hilly, difficult and full of ice; the weather, he said, was the soldiers' worst enemy.

"We could not get supplies due to the weather," Soto said. "Just keeping warm is enough -- changing felt inner soles ... change them many times ... keep moving toes and hands ... wiggle your toes when in the foxhole ... sandbags wrap your shoe pack ... run in place ... frost bite ... wounded and sick men ... and the Chinese hot on our trail like ants."

They left North Korea from the Yalu River and were drawn up at the Port of Hungnam, where they loaded refugees, children, women and old men. The Navy bombed the North Korean harbor on Christmas Eve of 1950.

"I started praying when I saw the whole harbor go up in flames, it was like the 4th of July! I do not remember anything else," Soto said. "It seemed like combat fatigue ... There was a period of about five or six days there that I don't remember anything.

"Korea up to this date, the 'Forgotten War,' 'police action,' is what they called it," Soto said. "In Korea, we had to stop aggression, and we should have learned a lesson, but no."

In 1964, he was sent to Fort Knox in Florida as a platoon sergeant to train 54 Cubans in basic, infantry and advanced infantry training. Subsequently, he volunteered for combat duty.

"I wanted to get promoted and I also wanted to find out what Vietnam was," Soto said. His first job in Vietnam was door gunner on helicopters and he also trained the Vietnamese in all aspects of pistol and machine-gun range.

Soto was awarded the Vietnam Gallantry Cross Palm, the Honor Medal with Cluster and the Civic Action Medal First Class with Palm. Some of his commendations come from manning a machine gun, taking out the wounded and making landing zones under fire.

"I'll never forget it. For three days, all I did was take refugees out of Tuy Hoa under fire," Soto recalled. "The way refugees lived in trenches -- very sad."

Soto retired from the armed forces when he was 62 and has spent hundreds of hours since then in community service: teaching senior citizens to speak English for 170 hours, serving as a Senior Vice Commander of VFW Post 8842, organizing the Veteran's Club at St Mary's in 1972.

He has also instructed children at Page Elementary School in San Antonio about the wars, and has also taught some Korean words.

"I pray that maybe this will make them better citizens and not go through what I went through," Soto said. "My feelings are very positive, and nothing comes easy.

“And may God bless you."

Mr. Soto was interviewed in San Antonio, Texas, on June 26, 1995, by Rea Ann Trotter.

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