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War & Locale: World War II -- European Theater
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By Natalie England
Martin Vega knows what discrimination is. He saw it in his everyday life.
He even saw that everyday discrimination culminate in murder.
Vega was born in Nuevo Leon, Mexico. His family immigrated to Taylor, Texas, 36 miles northeast of Austin, in 1921, where his father worked in the cotton fields. Times weren’t easy for Mexican Americans in Texas.
"I had two cousins murdered by the police," Vega said.
During a visit in 1945, his cousins, out drinking in Taylor, got into a scuffle. According to Vega, the police fired.
Both cousins died.
"They had a big stink, but nothing ever happened," said Vega of whether the police were held accountable for their actions.
As a young child, Vega says he didn’t see the discrimination that surrounded him; that awareness only came with age.
"In later years, I came to realize we weren't treated right," Vega said.
Vega's father, Matias, had light skin and red hair. But his uncle, his father's brother, had dark skin.
"My dad and uncle went into a restaurant," Vega said. "They would serve my dad but not my uncle."
Vega recalls rising at 4 a.m. as a child to join his father and older brothers in the cotton fields, working basically from sunrise to sunset.
"When I was 12 years old, I used to shine shoes," he said. "I'd go into pool halls, stores, taverns, asking to shoe shine. One day, I went into a barbershop ... and I told the barber I wished I could learn to cut hair. I cleaned the barbershop, and the barber told me to bring in my buddies, and try chopping their hair off. That's how I learned."
In 1943, Vega was drafted into the Army, where he was still a minority.
"My outfit there was the 105th Engineer Combat Battalion. I was the only Latin," he said.
Despite that, he says he was treated better in the Army than he was in Texas.
"I was treated good," Vega said.
Eventually, he and his battalion were called on to invade Omaha Beach. They arrived June 6, 1944, D-Day.
"Fortunately, I was not in the first, second or third wave," Vega said. "I was in the ninth wave.
"We traveled all the way to Normandy, Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg," he said.
In Germany, in September of 1944, Vega found himself amidst flying bullets and bombs. Many in his unit were wounded or killed.
"You could see all of us scattered," Vega said. "We couldn't find our direction."
Vega was hit in the head and leg. He recuperated in England, and was then sent to fight again in France.
As a mechanic in the 747 Railroad Battalion, Vega spent most of his time around trains and railroad tracks, both easy targets, as the enemy sought to cut off transportation.
"The train got bombed all to hell," he said. "We scattered like chickens. Luckily, it was hurting the cars and not the soldiers."
Vega earned the Purple Heart and a Bronze Star for his service in the Army. He was honorably discharged August 8, 1945, and returned to the U.S. to work in a steel mill.
Back home, he found something he hadn't bargained for: love and marriage.
He and Antonia Rivas, of Charles, Texas, married Sept. 6, 1947. They have four children: Steve, Nora, Sandra and Annette.
Daughter Nora carried on a Vega family tradition -- life in the steel mill. She’s a supervisor.
Vega credits his success to the military.
"I encourage everyone to go into the military for at least a couple of years," Vega said. "It'll get some of the misfits off the streets."
Mr. Vega was interviewed in East Chicago, Indiana, on July 20, 2002, by William Luna.