Categories: Post War Service
War & Locale: World War II -- European Theater
Date of Birth:
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By Gilbert Song
Born March 15, 1926, Maclovio Montoya experienced the Great Depression and military duty in World War II. Then it was off to the Pacific for the Korean War. However, it was in his golden years when he fought his greatest struggle -- trying for decades to receive the Purple Heart for being wounded in WWII.
Montoya has a quiet and husky voice; his demeanor is gentle. He wears a purple veteran's hat covered with military pins, ribbons and badges, accompanied by a matching purple silk bomber jacket.
His skin is weather-beaten from years of working with his father, building adobe houses and herding sheep.
When he talks about the battle in which he was wounded in 1945, he pounds his fist to chest to indicate the capacity of the destruction the German 88-mm mortar shells had on his battalion.
His regiment landed in France on Nov. 22, 1944, crossed into Belgium November 27 and into Germany Dec. 7. They received three campaign citations: Ardennes-Alsace, Rhineland and Central Europe.
"[We were] crossing the Rhine River [and we were] hit terribly from the hill. The huge river ran across an open field. The 88s shook you here," Montoya said. "That's why I'm sick."
As a result of that fateful day in 1945, which coincidentally was his birthday, Montoya now suffers from hearing loss and chronic headaches.
However, it isn’t his battle wounds about which Montoya has lingering resentment: It’s the fact the Army had him wait 37 years before acknowledging him with the Purple Heart for those wounds. He says he believes one reason he didn’t get his medal sooner is his ethnicity.
Discrimination is nothing new to Montoya. As a native Spanish-speaker, he spoke of the prejudice he and fellow Latino soldiers faced abroad as well as at home. Once, he recalls, he was shopping at a grocery in his hometown of Santa Fe, N.M., and wasn’t given a sales receipt. As soon as he stepped outside with his newly purchased groceries, a store clerk accused him of shoplifting when he couldn't produce the receipt; the clerk promptly called the police.
Another time, an Anglo soldier boorishly asked Montoya, "If you're Mexican, why are you in the American Army?" Montoya says it took all the self-restraint he had to prevent him from decking the soldier.
The irony is that Montoya has three-quarters Native American blood in him from his father's side, hence his nickname in the Army: "Chief." It was a name he felt honored to have.
Thus, in the Army, he overcame the challenges of discrimination; and afterward, even more challenges, particularly in trying to receive his Purple Heart.
When he returned to Santa Fe after the war, Montoya married Juanita Tapia on Sept. 18, 1946. The couple eventually had four children, and he became a baker at Rawley's Bakery in downtown Santa Fe and resumed his life.
However, even after returning to civilian life, Montoya could not lay to rest the issue of the Army withholding his Purple Heart.
Over the years, he contacted different government offices, congressmen, the Veterans Administration -- anyone who could possibly help him in his quest to get the medal. But to no avail: Door after door was closed in his face. The chief reason for this, he was told by the Army, was a lack of records showing he was wounded during battle.
A fire at the U.S. Army personnel Center at Fort Benjamin Harrison in Indianapolis, Ind., on July 12, 1973, destroyed Montoya's personnel file, according to a 1982 newspaper article in the Santa Fe New Mexican, which detailed Montoya's quest. He was entangled in a circular paperwork nightmare featuring the needed, destroyed records detailing his 1945 injury from the Army.
"I went through hell back in Germany and got out of it," Montoya said. "Now, [I went] through hell here in the United States!"
He needed to find documentation of his wounds elsewhere.
He thought he had the proof he needed after tracking down his platoon leader, then First Lieutenant. John J. Cannon, who wrote a letter on his behalf. It said Montoya did in fact serve in Company A of the 311th Infantry Regiment, 78th Infantry Division and suffered wounds in battle.
After this, however, Montoya was once again turned down by the Army; he’d need a letter from the ranking officer of the troop for him to receive his Purple Heart. Montoya tried for years to find that man to no avail.
A frustrated and exasperated Montoya was about to lose hope, until a lawyer friend learned of his struggle and decided to help out. John Cassell, who attends Holy Faith Episcopal Church with Montoya, was an assistant attorney general who was a legal adviser for the state police. Cassell was able to reach an Army clerk, who procured hospital records that placed Montoya in the field for at least three days, according to the Santa Fe New Mexican.
"It's hard to find a lawyer you can trust," said Montoya, with a slight smile. "But he's a great guy. Very nice guy."
The Army accepted the records. And finally, on Oct. 13, 1982, Montoya was presented with the Purple Heart for sustaining injuries while under German mortar fire. Overall, Montoya was awarded several medals for his service, including the Bronze Star, EASM Campaign Medal with three Campaign Stars, WWII Victory Medal and Combat Infantryman's Badge.
"The ceremony was beautiful. I was so happy that day to finally get my medal," Montoya said. "It was so good to have my family there and watch."
Even after all the heartache and trials he went through, Montoya insists he’s no longer bitter over his experiences, and that he remains a patriotic American.
"What [the Army] did to me was not right," Montoya said. "But I'm proud to be an American, to fight for the flag."
Mr. Montoya was interviewed in Santa Fe, New Mexico, on November 3, 2002, by Violeta Dominguez.