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War & Locale: World War II -- European Theater
Date of Birth:
By Veronica Olvera
Amid the horror of war in the European Theater, Benigno Diaz found himself in awe of the deadly efficiency of enemy forces, struck by "how accurate the German aviators were," he said.
Diaz served as a scout during World War II when he was just a teenager. He enlisted just shy of his 18th birthday and left his Los Angeles home for the frontlines of the war in Europe. While he managed to stay alive, he witnessed the fate of comrades who weren't as fortunate.
One deadly scene in particular remains etched in his memory. Near the town of Dillingen, Diaz's 24-hour shift was interrupted by enemy fire.
"At the start of the combat . . . I wasn't too far from the scout from the first platoon . . . [and he] tripped a wire or something," he said. [He and the sergeant] were blown and the sergeant's head was just split open.
After evoking the memory, Diaz pauses. A sniffle finally breaks the silence and his facial expression becomes stoic.
"Things like that you don't forget," he said. "You don't forget. I was only 19. To me, it was too much."
But even before the war, he had been no stranger to hardship. When Diaz was only six, his family was reeling from the impact of the Great Depression. They were living in California, receiving government assistance while working to eke out a living as migrant farm workers, picking fruits and vegetables at ranches across the state. Diaz's father, Ralph Diaz, also worked as a welder under the Works Progress Administration, but the family still relied on government assistance to secure groceries and clothing.
Diaz remembers his mother making giant tortillas, the family’s diet consisting mostly of beans, potatoes and rice, along with the gargantuan flatbread.
Diaz attended school until he was 17, but quit when times got especially rough after his father's death.
"I did like school, but I had to quit because my dad died when I was 11 years old. Some way, somehow [my mom] got us into work as extras in the movies, he said with a smile, adding that he has an extra long shot in the film The Mark of Zorro.
To supplement those sporadic cameos, he shined shoes, handed out fliers for movie theaters and worked in a stationery supply store. He also found time to box, becoming good enough to win a pugilistic competition while in the Army.
Lying about his age to recruiters, he enlisted with 10 other Latinos in the Army's 65th Division. After a short stay at Fort McArthur in San Pedro, Calif., he was shipped to Camp Shelby, Miss., for training.
He remembers long days of rigorous training frustrated by chigger infestations, which he adds were no match for the stings of discrimination he faced in the nearby town of Hattiesburg
"They weren't prejudiced of any color," he explained. "They were prejudiced because we were soldiers."
He recalls seeing signs on shop windows that read "no uniformed people allowed in restaurant." Sometimes, the abuse took its toll. One example was when soldiers reacted violently to one of the store's pricing criteria by hurling stones at the building.
"Those merchants would have one price for civilians and another price for soldiers," he said.
Diaz’s escape from Hattiesburg came when he was shipped to Camp Shanks and then to Camp Lucky Strike in France. While there, General George C. Patton spoke to the soldiers and delivered a startling message that is forever ingrained in Diaz's memory.
"Do not get killed before you kill at least one of them," he recalled the general instructing them.
The young soldier later found himself precisely in the kind of situation Patton had described, faced with the decision to either kill or be killed while tending to dying comrades.
In Neumarkt, Germany, on April 23, 1945, Diaz remembers himself in one of the former scenarios. As he was scouting a field, he shot an enemy soldier, but didn’t see other ones who’d hidden nearby. A grenade flew toward him from the brush, and he narrowly avoided it by rolling behind a fence.
He knew an enemy soldier was on the opposite side, so he waited. When the German soldier peered over the fence, Diaz shot him in the forehead. That same day, Diaz threw a grenade at two German soldiers visible through a window inside a building. But upon later inspection, he found the body of a young boy among the German casualties, a member of the Hitler Youth.
Overwhelmed with guilt, Diaz is troubled to this day when he thinks of the young, unintended victim.
"That made me feel bad, killing a boy. When it was over, I just sat down. I sat down and started crying," he said. "I can't forget, either."
Diaz was wounded shortly after that. It was another day of combat on April 26, 1945, when he failed to see the enemy soldiers across the Danube River and was shot as he crossed over the dike. Gunfire was exchanged, and he took a bullet to the shoulder and rolled into the water. Through his dizziness and pain, he heard a comrade's pleas for help.
"I heard another GI crying, 'Help, help!' and I got in the water and got him," recalled Diaz, his voice breaking. "He told me, 'Please don't let me drown!' I carried him [out of the river] and he cried out, 'Mama, Mama.'
"He died in my arms. I couldn't help him."
Diaz was sent to recover in England and later to the U.S. On a train to San Francisco, he passed through Camp Lockett -- a small U.S. Cavalry post near Campo, Calif., on the border north and east of Tecate, Mexico -- for rehabilitation and was finally discharged Oct. 27, 1945.
He noticed how life had changed in his absence, namely how the neighborhood kids he knew were all grown. And he soon realized he’d no longer be able to box, as a result of his wartime injury.
After a brief stint as a mail clerk, he secured a job as an upholsterer. He also got married, but ended up divorcing after 10 years.
His search for answers to his post-war questions took him on a journey through many cities.
After a brief stay in San Jose, he returned to Los Angeles, where he met his second wife, Mary Candelaria. The two were married July 28, 1962. They had three children: Kimberly, Lisa and Benigno.
At long last finding some semblance of peace and love in a life marked by poverty and hardship, he sensed the healing process was in its final stages and opted to settle in Los Angeles, where he remains today.
Notwithstanding the hard times, he remains resolute in his devotion to the motherland.
"I'm very proud of my country," Diaz said.
Mr. Diaz was interviewed in Los Angeles, California, on February 23, 2002, by Cheryl Browntein-Santiago.