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War & Locale: World War II -- European Theater
Date of Birth:
By Joel Weickgenant
As a 20-year-old at the end of 1942, Juan Lujan remembers thinking World War II was passing him by. He wanted to participate in the war effort, but he’d promised his mother he wouldn't volunteer.
In the end, it was a promise Lujan wasn’t able to keep.
"I was afraid the war would be over, and I would not get the chance to go," he said.
Lujan got his wish in November of 1942, when he was drafted into the Army, rendering his promise to his mother moot.
It didn't take the military long to determine Lujan, a former college student, was a highly motivated candidate. He was soon transferred to the Army's Air Corps radio school in Sioux Falls, N.D., where he says his college background helped set him apart from others in the military.
Lujan and other radio school candidates spent hours studying and training, he recalls.
"I saw others digging ditches, burning coal," Lujan said. "That hard, hard winter could have been a lot harder."
He also recalls working as a member of the plane crew being the most dangerous part of training, as former glider pilots were being trained to take off and land C-47s.
In the summer of 1943, Lujan was assigned to duty in North Africa with the 12th Air Force, 62nd Group. The Group had been brought in to replace an entire squadron of C-47s that had been shot down by friendly fire during a mission over Sicily.
He remembers the shock and horror on the faces of those who returned as survivors from the "friendly fire" disaster in Sicily.
"Most of them were drunk," Lujan recalled. "And they remained drunk for about two weeks. I was lucky. I went there as a replacement."
He worked as part of a crew that dropped paratroopers behind enemy lines and transported wounded soldiers back to medical bases.
But he recalls the most dangerous assignment he undertook was training glider pilots in North Africa how to execute landings with their glider planes. The work was tricky and high-risk. But he says the training earned him extra points that allowed him to speed his return back to the U.S., ultimately getting discharged with the rank of Staff Sergeant.
After his tour of duty in World War II, Lujan returned to complete his college degree at the University of Texas in Austin and pursued a career in education. He was a teacher, principal and superintendent for 16 years.
Looking back on his life, Lujan talks about his devotion to education in ironic terms. Growing up in tiny Redford, Texas, he almost didn’t get the chance to receive an education of his own, he says.
"If my father had lived -- of course it's nice to have a father -- I would not have been educated past the sixth grade," Lujan said.
Born in 1922, Lujan grew up the son of a cotton farmer. If it wasn’t for the untimely death of his father, José Lujan, he probably would have followed in his father's footsteps.
"Cotton was the only cash crop," Lujan said. "Everything else was for consumption."
Lujan remembers that Redford in the 1920s was literally the end of the road. In order to sell cotton, his father had to transport the crop by wagon to Presidio, 16 miles away.
"We lived in an unbelievably primitive society," Lujan recalled. "No electricity, water, and there were devastating floods."
Nevertheless, life in the 1920s was good, Lujan says. And when the Depression hit in the 1930s, the small community of farmers managed to pull together and survive.
"In a farm, being poor means you're not going to starve to death," Lujan said. "We were poor and we didn't even know it."
The local elementary school taught students until the sixth grade, but there was no high school. The nearest school district was 75 miles away in Marfa, Texas, so most children in Redford didn’t continue their education beyond elementary school, Lujan says.
He lost his father while attending sixth grade in Redford. His mother, Jesusita Nieto Lujan, moved her children to nearby Marfa. The move allowed Lujan the chance to continue his education. It also opened his eyes to the reality of a segregated and racist West Texas society.
He remembers being told to take his transcripts to the principal of the “Mexican” school in Marfa.
"I had friends who had moved to Mexico, and they went to school," Lujan recalled. "To me, that was a 'Mexican' school."
Redford had been a community comprised entirely of Mexican Americans. But in Marfa, segregation of schoolchildren started in the seventh grade.
"Some of our teachers tried to do the best they could with what they had," Lujan said.
He remembers piling up in pickup trucks to go to spelling bees, and the interscholastic sporting events organized between “Mexican” schools in the region.
Despite his teachers' best efforts, Lujan says his life has a big "arts and music" void because of the opportunities he was never offered as a child.
"I remember seeing a bunch of boys bigger than I was, singing their hearts out!" Lujan said. "They were competing in choir. I had seen men that would sing because they were drunk. But here was something that I said, 'I wish I had.' But I never did."
Thanks to his mother's move to Marfa, education became the driving force in young Lujan's life. When he was 16, he moved to California to work as a beet farmer with his brother, earning 35 cents an hour, much of which he tried to send back to his mother.
He was unable to attend school that year, but when he visited home that winter, it was obvious to Jesusita he felt left out.
"I came home, and according to my mother, I cried all night," Lujan said. "And she said, 'You're going to school.' So I did."
He recalls crying the night of graduation, thinking the moment might never arrive.
By the time he was drafted in November of 1942, Lujan was a high school graduate, and had completed almost two years of college at New Mexico A&M University while working with the CCC.
He maintains his WWII experience was somewhat easier to take, due largely to his educational experience in college, which he says helped him overcome the systematic discrimination to which other Latinos were subjected while serving in the Armed Forces. The military’s system generally discriminated against Latinos by pigeonholing them into more dangerous, uncomfortable roles, he says.
Mr. Lujan was interviewed in Austin, Texas, on October 18, 2003, by Joel Weickgenant.