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War & Locale: World War II -- Pacific Theater
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By Robin Larson
For Antonio "Tony"M. Esquivel, any romanticized remembrances of youth are tempered with memories of pervasive pre-war segregation in his hometown and the inescapable horror he endured in combat.
"I liked the service because it put a lot of incentive in me," Esquivel said. "I just didn't like the death I witnessed."
A Mexican American, Esquivel was born April 27, 1925, in Colton, Texas. His family lived on the Anglo side of town, where the railroad company for which his father worked was headquartered. Like other railroad families, the Esquivels lived in "section" housing, barrack-like dwellings that housed thirty or forty families.
His parents were born in Guadalajara, Mexico, and had five children. The youngest, Esquivel never knew his mother, as she died of a heart attack when he was 6 months old. His older sister, Ester, assumed his mother's role, taking care of the younger children. She perfected her surrogate role to the point that Esquivel believed her to be his actual mother until he was 12 years old.
Emotions were mixed when he learned the truth: "I was disappointed, but my love for her did not change; she was the only mother I knew," said Esquivel of his sister.
Segregation forced Esquivel to walk seven miles to Garfield Elementary in downtown Colton, because the school within the city limits was for "white" students only.
He says he dreamed of becoming an architect, but his hopes were dashed upon learning he'd have to maintain at least a 3.5 grade-point average: "I was not very studious as a child," he said.
At 15, Esquivel met his future wife, Rosy Romo, in Riverside, Texas, where he toiled at an orange grove on weekends. After a year, he indulged in a luxury -- a 1929 Chevy, which he purchased with money he’d saved to facilitate visits to Rosy. Filling up the gas tank gave him his first inkling a war was raging, given the high cost of rationed fuel.
At 17, Esquivel quit school to work full time. By May of 1941, at the age of 18, he married Rosy in Colton. He rented a house on Riverside for $18 a month and the couple had a son, Tony Jr., shortly after.
Esquivel learned of the attack on Pearl Harbor in Hammock, Texas, where he worked as a peach and walnut picker. His employer deferred an initial draft notice, arguing Esquivel's absence would constitute an undue business hardship. But eventually, Esquivel was called up.
The Army sent him to Camp Roberts in Salinas, Texas, where he lived in barracks with soldiers of myriad cultures.
"We were brothers; discrimination no longer existed," Esquivel recalled. "You get the opportunity to meet different cultures from different places."
After seven weeks of basic training, he received word his son was seriously ill.
"I took an emergency leave for three days, but when I was due to come back, I learned that the 25th Infantry I was a part of left for overseas and their ship was torpedoed. There were no survivors," said Esquivel, whose son survived his ailment.
After training, he was promoted to the rifle infantry and sent to Seattle, Wash., en route to Osaka, Japan, in 1945. It took more than 40 days to travel overseas, a much longer journey than normal, because their ship twice escaped being torpedoed and had to evade circling Japanese kamikaze pilots intent on suicide missions as a last-ditch damage effort.
After Osaka, Esquivel was sent to Cheerio, a subdivision of Nagoya, Japan. By now, he’d been promoted to a VR man, a position denoting proficiency in handling the infantry's heaviest weapon.
While overseas, Esquivel learned his beloved sister, Ester, had died from a heart attack. Two weeks later, his older brother, Michael, also died from the same cause. Even though he was witnessing death every day overseas, Esquivel’s personal losses were devastating, especially the loss of the sister who’d cared for him.
"I was in war, but I still couldn't believe it when I was told that my sister had died," Esquivel said.
Tokyo would be his last wartime stop. Being sent home was contingent on accumulation of "points" based on various criteria, including overseas stints such as the 11-month tour of duty he’d been on. Based on his points, he was sent home in 1946.
Once home, Esquivel resumed his work on the harvest.
"It was a turning point in my life because I hated it and did not want to continue with this line of work for the rest of my life. I decided to learn the way of the Anglos to better myself," Esquivel said.
As a result, he studied carpentry, going to night school Tuesdays and Thursdays while working full-time as an apprentice. After four years, he was promoted to General Superintendent of Woodson Construction Co., where he’d work 18 years.
Meanwhile, his family continued to grow with the birth of another child, a girl they named Marian. And in 1970, the couple adopted two more girls, Theresa and Angela, from an Alabama orphanage.
Esquivel became active in politics, and, in 1970, became the first Latino to be appointed as a commissioner. He also began what would be 30 years of involvement with the G.I. Forum.
One of his proudest post-war accomplishments is influencing his daughter to enter politics. Graduating with a degree in Chicano studies, Marian became heavily involved in political and social movements. At one point, she and Esquivel were the only father--daughter team serving as commissioners simultaneously. Sadly, Marian died in a car accident three years ago.
"She was unbelievable, but someone up above needed her more than we did," Esquivel said.
At 87, Esquivel considers his life as one imbued with fulfillment. He says his post-war interest in politics is an avocation for which younger generations should strive.
"I did not graduate high school so I had a minimal amount of education, but I have a Ph.D. in the world. I did not let education stop me from progressing in my life. Political involvement and hard work are precious and free, take advantage of it."
Mr. Esquivel was interviewed on July 26, 2001, by Carlos G. Velez-Ibáñez.