Categories: The Great Depression
War & Locale: World War II -- European Theater
Date of Birth:
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By Zachary Warmbrodt
Around March of 1921, Anita Vega Reyes and her three young boys were on the run. Her husband, Pedro Reyes, had owned a mine in their hometown of Cananea, Sonora, and he was getting too political, his youngest son Adolfo Reyes– then six months old – recounts. Pedro was shot and killed by enemies in Baja who wanted his mine. Now, his killers were after his wife and sons.
The family fled to Arizona. Fortunately, the United States was familiar to them. Anita had been born in Arizona, as had her first son, Pete. Because Pedro “wanted to be a big shot” in Mexican politics, he had demanded Reyes and his other brother, Johnny, be born in Mexico, Reyes says. Anita still had family in the U.S.
In Arizona, Reyes was raised primarily by his aunt and uncle, Rosa Reyes Rivas and Antonio Rivas, as his mother remarried. Rosa and Antonio cleaned houses and let Anita share in some of the work. Reyes recalls the family being “poor like anybody else those years ago.”
When his uncle became a contractor for labor in the fields and orchards of the West, Reyes and his guardians followed the harvest to California. The rootless lifestyle made school difficult to keep up with, so Reyes had to quit in ninth grade. Decades away from Brown v. Board of education, schooling in California was segregated. Reyes says he and his friends never had much contact with white people, however, and that he never had any problems with racism in school or later in life.
“I never felt any different,” he said.
As he came of age, Reyes began driving trucks through California’s fields of grapes and cantaloupes. Even though The Depression was taking its toll on most American families, he says he never went hungry.
“We worked in the field,” he said. “We always had something to eat. We had no extra luxuries or anything, but we were alright. We never complained about being hungry.”
As Reyes took on a job at a San Pedro ship yard, the war broke out. A year after Pearl Harbor, the 22 year-old and his brothers were drafted. Pete went to the Pacific; Johnny to Italy. And, after boot camp in Kilgore, Texas, Reyes went to Europe.
“I didn’t wanna go, but I had to do it, I guess,” he said.
He recalls being the only Mexican in an Army unit full of American boys from Texas and Oklahoma. They gave him special treatment, he says, like a mascot.
After boot camp, Reyes and other members of the 23rd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division crossed the Atlantic and snaked their way from Ireland to the beaches of Normandy on June 7, 1944, the day after the D-Day invasion. The Germans were still pounding the beach front with heavy fire. Men were dying all around Reyes.
After making it past the German hedgerows and enjoying a brief furlough in Paris, the unit became entangled in the Battle of Brest. Reyes and a fellow soldier took control of a 37-millimeter gun and blasted shells toward a German-occupied building. The exploding shells cut up the Germans’ faces “real bad” and some of them were probably killed, Reyes said. He recalls taking the survivors as prisoners of war.
Reyes’ next challenge would be the Battle of the Bulge, the largest land battle the U.S. military has ever fought. Although he doesn’t remember his exact location, he says his unit spent two weeks in the bitter cold with little in the way of supplies. They were waiting for a German assault. Soldiers in his unit began digging through the snow to find discarded parts of their K-Rations, which had earlier been wasted, he says. The winter was one of the coldest on record. Other soldiers’ accounts show that men urinated on weapons to thaw them and slept with multiple overcoats and blankets.
The Germans began shelling Reyes’ unit. This would be his closest brush with death on the battlefield. Beside him, a 20-year-old Italian boy who’d grown attached to Reyes was hit. Under heavy fire, Reyes tried to move the young soldier, not knowing if he was alive or dead. (He would never find out if the young man survived.)
Suddenly, the rifle Reyes was holding against his right arm burst, and his right arm and leg were paralyzed. He jumped through a foxhole and everything went dark.
The artillery shell didn’t kill him. He woke up in a Belgium hospital, where he stayed in bed for two weeks.
After recuperating, Reyes says he was reassigned to Paris and England for a few months. His ability to fight was never the same, though, and he was soon discharged. One of more than 80,000 injured in the Battle of the Bulge, he sought further treatment at a Modesto, Calif., military hospital.
The constant danger in the European Theater made it hard to make friends. Reyes has never been able to keep up with any of his fellow soldiers.
“Friendships that we make, they’re gone,” he said. “They either got killed or they got wounded and that was the end of it. If they got hurt, that was it. In other words, you couldn’t say, ‘Oh, this friend’s been with me for months and months, because there never was such a thing as that.”
He spent 8 months at the Modesto hospital, during which time the war ended and his brothers returned home safely. Although the nerves in his arm and leg weren’t permanently damaged, Reyes says he had no desire to return to the service.
“I just wanted to get out,” he said.
Despite his injury, he spent the rest of his working life steadily employed as an inspector in a clothing factory for 11 years, followed by 30 years as a truck driver. He learned to keep quiet about his arm in job interviews, and didn’t flaunt his service too much.
Reyes never used the GI Bill, even as he bought a home in California with his second wife. He divorced his first wife shortly after the war, after receiving letters in Europe about her suspected adultery.
He sought counseling for chronic nightmares, which he says got worse as he got older. He had flashbacks about the Army and bad dreams about his job, none of which he described in detail.
Reyes shows no nostalgia for his service. He has never attended Veterans of Foreign Wars meetings, nor has he heard of LULAC or the GI Forum. He proudly talks about how he turned down promotions “two, three, four times” because he didn’t want to stay.
“I’m not proud of my service. I’m just glad that I made it,” said Reyes, whose earliest memories are of running for his life. “I was just too damn lucky. Too many people died right next to me and I just happened to survive.”
Mr. Reyes was interviewed in Palmdale, California, on September 11, 2004, by Steven Rosales.