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War & Locale: World War II -- Pacific Theater
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By Melissa Watkins
Carlos Peña's mother, Natividad, used to say the only time Anglos came around their little farm near San Benito, Texas, was when they needed another football player or when there was a war.
This first happened when a high school coach, a Coach McMillan, approached the family when Carlos Peña was only 13. He needed another player. Young Carlos' father, Fermí¬n, who thought football was just a bunch of crazy guys beating each other up, left the decision up to the oldest of his six sons. Peña said yes.
The next time an Anglo came calling, Peña was 17. He was drafted again ... this time for World War II.
As a younger teenager, Peña met Coach McMillan -- he can't remember his first name -- one afternoon after school for his first day on the playing field.
"I'd never seen a football uniform before that day," said Peña, who’d only tossed a football in the fields behind the school.
After he suited up for practice, there was one small problem -- his big feet. The school didn't have shoes large enough to fit Peña's size-12 feet.
"Coach McMillan made the assistant coach give me his shoes," Peña recalled.
Then they headed out to the field, where Peña was thrown into a game with unfamiliar rules. He was later taken off the junior high team to play with the high school team, which went to the state championship playoffs.
The Army assigned Peña to the 24th Infantry Division on Dec. 7, 1943. After passing physical examinations, he was stationed at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas, where his big feet proved once again to be a problem.
"We were marching and, for some reason, they didn't have my shoe size," Peña said. "A lieutenant caught me and said, 'Young man, why are you in civilian shoes?' I told him they had ordered me some. He told me to go back to the barracks until I had shoes."
Two weeks later, Peña was sent to Camp Shelby in Mississippi, where he completed his basic training, specializing in 88-mm mortars. Even though he'd been pulled from his own high school, Peña helped other soldiers complete questionnaires to receive their diplomas through correspondence courses.
"Here were these guys who couldn't read or write getting their diplomas, and I never graduated from high school," Peña said. "They were too ashamed to go to the other gringos."
After being shipped to California for jungle training, Peña boarded a boat for New Guinea with 5,000 other men. During his time on the boat, he learned about the traditions of other cultures. For example, separate services were held for Catholic, Protestant and Jewish soldiers on board the ship.
Peña's ship landed at the island of Leyte in the Philippines the day after the invasion during the Japanese bombings. There, he was sent to a different company and assigned to a 12-foot-long gun on wheels, and began shooting over the mountains.
"The Japanese were coming from both sides," Peña said. "They were firing on the beach. The beach was littered with Japanese. I was assigned to the outfit protecting the artillery."
The Japanese retreated after seeing the number of American soldiers. Peña experienced battle for the first time and spent Christmas on the island.
"There were no waves. You could walk 1,000 yards out into the sea," Peña recalled.
Leyte wasn’t the only island where Peña spent time. On Mindanao, an airbase was quickly assembled. The runway was made of sheets of metal laid down and fitted together. Just like learning plays in football, Peña had to learn to avoid being ambushed by groups of Japanese soldiers. During one such attack, he jumped onto a rock to get better aim at two men. After firing a few rounds, he realized the soldiers were actually decoys: the two had been bayoneted and propped up to create a diversion. They were oozing bodily fluids, a sign they’d been dead awhile.
Peña's outfit later found the remains of an airport that had been locked and then set on fire by the Japanese with Philippine people still inside. He witnessed men jump out of airplanes before they exploded and crashed in the Philippine countryside. He fell to malaria and had his knee ripped open by a motor.
He was put on a boat to recover for almost a month. Upon boarding, he recognized a familiar face, a man named Santiago de la Fuente, nicknamed "Pino," from his hometown of San Benito, who also happened to work in the kitchen.
"He would bring sirloin and potatoes to me in bed while the other men had to eat wieners and kraut. They'd complain and ask, 'Why's he get that and we get this?' Pino would just say, 'Doctor's orders.' He even brought me Napoleon ice cream."
After his release from the infirmary, Peña’s outfit began an attack on a building in the middle of Mindanao. His captain had the men retreat quietly, thinking the Japanese were surrounding them. Suddenly, bullets started flying. Somewhere across the vast expanse of land, guns were firing down from the mountains. In an unfortunate mistake, six men in Peña's group lost their lives to friendly fire: Peña says American soldiers had fired at and killed their own men.
The day the war was over, Peña awoke with abdomen pains. His appendix had burst so he received an emergency appendectomy aboard a naval ship. After his recuperation, he was assigned the task of confiscating weapons from Japanese civilians. Peña traveled door to door taking the weapons of families.
"We'd gather them [weapons] up and take them out and dump them in the middle of the ocean," Peña recalled. "At one house, I took all the weapons except one. The man begged me not to take it. He said it was for rabbits. He took me out in the field and showed me how he shot these rabbits for food. I let him keep the gun."
Peña was discharged March 22, 1946, earning a Bronze Star for his action in the liberation of the Philippines.
He married Ofelia Rodriguez on August 5, 1951, and the couple had one son, John.
Peña worked for LT Boswell Ford as an auto parts manager for 55 years, and says he never missed a day of work and was never late.
At the age of 79, Peña still has a rifle and saber he confiscated during the war. His medals and patches are in frames on a wall in his home. He tried on his old green Army jacket, but it won't reach across his now-broad shoulders. His old shoes would probably be too small, also, as he now wears a size 13.
"As I got older, my feet just got bigger," said Peña to the laughter of his family in the background.
Mr. Peña was interviewed in San Benito, Texas, on March 14, 2004, by Rick Leal.