Categories: Health Issues
War & Locale: World War II -- Pacific Theater
Date of Birth:
By Cheryl Smith
Much like the proverbial elder who trudged long distances to school in the snow, wind and rain, Manuel Provencio trekked a couple of miles a day from school to his uncle Juan Galceran's shoe repair shop, where he pulled in a whopping 10 cents a day.
"They got an easy life now. ... Now they don't drive, they don't go to work," the still-fit 77-year-old said.
By age 13, Provencio dropped out of school and began working for his uncle full time. Within three years, he was laboring as a roofer for the Rio Grande Lumber Company, helping his grandmother and three younger sisters survive financially during the Great Depression.
He was 18 in 1943 when Uncle Sam called him to serve his country in World War II; as he put it: "they took me." He was inducted into the Army in his hometown of El Paso then sent to the Army Service Forces School at Camp Lee, near Petersburg, Va., for three months of basic and quartermaster training.
Then Provencio was shipped from San Francisco to New Caledonia. From New Caledonia he was shipped as a replacement to the 77th Quartermaster Company's 77th Division in Guam. He arrived on July 21, 1944 after the main assault and spent 25 days in heavy combat until mid-August. Provencio was still fighting scattered Japanese resistance when his division departed for the Philippines’ Leyte Island, where they fought from Nov. 23, 1944, until March of 1945. He worked as a goods distributor and, although he spent more time doing manual labor than on the battlefield, bloodshed was often hauntingly near.
"You could hear [bullets] Ping! Watch out. ... You never knew," he said.
Provencio was involved in the Okinawa campaign, which lasted from March 26 until July 1945. The division was then shipped to the Philippines’ Cebu to rest and recover from the previous campaign. Then they were off to Hokkaido, Japan, as an occupational force for five months.
"It was colder than hell. I never saw so much snow in my life," he said.
Provencio was then sent to Yokohama, Japan, for one month. From Yokohama he returned to Seattle and then to Fort Bliss, Texas, where he was discharged from the Army on March 1, 1946, at the rank of Corporal. He went overseas weighing a strapping 175 pounds and returned a scrawny 115.
"Maggots used to ruin your appetite," he said of the sight of the insects feasting on corpses.
The limited meal options Provencio and his comrades had to choose from weren't exactly appetizing either.
"Sometimes there would be bugs in there," he said of the boxes of cereal from which he frequently got his breakfast.
But they ate the cereal and practically anything else they could get their hands on because "there was nothing else." Some soldiers’ stomachs handled the improvisational diet better than others, he recalls.
"You'd see those guys with a shovel and a roll of toilet paper and you'd know where they were going," Provencio said.
Almost everybody battled some kind of ailment at one point or another, adds Provencio, who says he had dengue fever but beat it in three days. He still hasn't conquered the jungle rot he managed to contract, however.
"I'll take it 6 feet under," he said of the notorious fungus.
Provencio made $50 a month as a soldier, always sending $15 to his grandmother back on the Texas-Mexico border. He was the only Mexican American in his company, so his comrades dubbed him "Spic." Despite the lewd nickname, he says he didn't experience much discrimination.
"The 77th was from New York, there was no discrimination," he said.
The only soldier he had trouble getting along with was a fellow from Dalhart, Texas, who kept referring to him as "Wetback."
Provencio finally told him, "When you get out of the service, go to the Alamo. ... [Look at] how many Gringos died and how many wetbacks died."
The fellow visited the Alamo after the war, prompting an apologetic letter to Provencio.
"[Hate] is passed from generation to generation," he recalled the letter saying. "Some of us hate somebody else but we don't know what we hate in those people. We're ignorant."
After the war, Provencio returned to El Paso and went back to work for the Rio Grande Lumber Co. Little had changed in remote West Texas, he says, so he slipped right back into his old, familiar routine of working hard and minding his own business.
"I stayed by myself and out of mischief," he said. "I went to work and that's all."
That's not to say he didn't speak up if provoked, however. One day, right after he got out of the service, a man working in a local service station called him "wetback."
"OK, white trash," Provencio replied.
Another time, a local fellow attempted getting his attention by yelling, "Hey, Cisco."
"Yes, Pancho?" Provencio answered back.
He eventually became a successful El Paso grocer, attributing much of his good fortune to a local Jewish friend who owned a retail store and who trained him in the art of customer service.
"'When a guy comes through that door, he's a king. ... Treat him nice. ... He's coming in here to feed you,'" Provencio recalled his mentor telling him.
Formal education has served him little purpose, he says.
"I didn't need the schooling a lot of these people had. Life is the best school in the world," he said.
Now retired, Provencio lives with his second wife, Aurora Eguarte Provencio, in El Paso. He has one daughter and four sons, all with his first wife, Luz Sepulveda Provencio.
He marvels at the accomplishments of his children, especially one son, a CPA at a Dallas accounting firm.
"Before, the Anglos were the ones on top all the time," he noted.
But he says he doesn't dwell on the past, including his 2 1/2 years in the Army.
"I went and served my time and forgot about it. Some people live in the past and that's no good. Those memories will kill you," he said. "What's gone is gone. Like they say, 'Vamos.'"
A self-described loner, Provencio seems proud of the fact he's not an active member of any organization. And he remarks more than once that he didn't make any friends during the war.
"I never got personal. ...You get too buddy-buddy, then pretty soon they'll be gone and you'll feel it," he said.
Still remembering the name of the one man in his company who didn't make it home, he's been unable to cleanse his memory completely of the war, however.
"His name was Appleby," Provencio said.
Mr. Provencio was interviewed in El Paso, Texas, on August 2, 2002, by Robert Rivas.