War & Locale: World War II -- United States
Date of Birth:
Raquel C. Garza
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By Jared Hill
Manuel Perez was one of the hundreds of thousands of Latino citizens forced by way of selective service to join the military after the United States joined World War II following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. And just like many other Americans, Perez had to put his own life on hold to serve his country, even though he never stepped foot on the battlefield.
Perez was born in Uvalde, Texas, on April 26, 1923. Before the war, he lived with his parents, Andrea and Rico Perez, and sister, Micaela. He didn’t have any brothers, so instead he played with other boys he met around the neighborhood.
But even though he got along with everyone, he says he was always ready to protect himself if he had to.
“If anybody tried to hit me, you know, I’d hit ‘em back. That’s for sure,” Perez said. “When I had to fight, I fought. So that’s it. I hit and got hit.”
He says he learned a lot while spending time with the neighborhood children, including how to speak English, because his dad could only speak Spanish. And when hanging out with friends, he enjoyed the same activities many children did: playing sports and riding stick horses. He also liked hunting rabbits with his 22-mm rifle, he adds, still boasting of his marksmanship.
“I became a good shot,” he said. “In fact, when I got out of the service, I got a certificate that said ‘qualification with arms expert,’ so you know that I knew how to shoot.”
While at home, he often helped his mother with cooking and gardening. He also says he sometimes traveled with his father as he sheered sheep for 30 cents a head in Colorado, Montana and Wyoming.
In short, while he soaked up the local culture with the help of his friends, his parents reminded him of his Mexican roots and taught him practical skills that would help him later on. But all of this learning, even his formal high school education, came to an abrupt halt when he was drafted into the Army.
“I didn’t graduate, because I went to the service.” Perez said. “And when I came back from the service, I went to help my dad. So that was it.
“I wanted to go [to college] when I was in high school, but when I got back from the service I just thought, ‘Well, I guess I gotta work.’”
Even though getting drafted affected his chances for a higher education, Perez doesn’t seem resentful. For him, joining the service wasn’t merely about civic duty; it was about pride.
“Everybody that was drafted was willing to go. No opposition, you know?” He said. “If you have to go, you go. You don’t chicken out.”
Perez says he started out in San Antonio, Texas, where he ‘marched around a little bit’ before he was sent to Camp Roberts in San Luis Obispo County, Calif., to begin basic training. Then, on Sept. 18, 1943, he says he was assigned to Camp Callan in the La Jolla, Calif., area, where he remained until he was released from the service.
“One of the sergeants, you know, they picked a bunch of guys out. I don’t know if they were getting ready to leave or what,” he said.
“And they took everybody but maybe six or eight of us, and I asked the sergeant, ‘Where are they going?’
‘They’re going overseas.’
‘What about me?’
‘You stay here,’” recalled Perez with a laugh.
But that doesn’t mean he wasn’t prepared to go if he had to; he was trained just like the rest of the soldiers. In fact, he was trained even more so, since after basic training, he was chosen to go to radar school, where he was taught how to track down enemy aircraft using specialized machinery – a skill he’d never get to use in actual combat.
Since Perez was never sent to fight, he had to find other activities to occupy his spare time, and seems to have had a lot of fun doing so. For example, sometimes a couple of the corporals and sergeants would take him and some of the other men off base to a ballpark nearby to see a baseball game, he says. Other times, they would venture off to a skating rink and go “skate dancing,” or if someone got hungry at night, one of the soldiers would sneak off base without permission to go to a hamburger joint nearby.
“You know, [the draftees] were just young kids, and if you want to go get a hamburger, you get a hamburger.”
Perez didn’t have any trouble funding his entertainment because he says he was always finding easy ways to make an extra buck. What other men saw as tedious, pointless tasks, he saw as profit. For example, he’d offer his services shining shoes and cleaning guns after returning from a day of hard training. He’d even send money home to his mother every once in a while, he says.
One of Perez’s clearest memories of Camp Roberts is standing in awe high on a hill above the camp’s training grounds as he watched a large group of men exercise together.
“If you want to see something really nice, it’s to watch a bunch of guys make exercise and all at the same time, simultaneously doing the same thing,” he said, raising his arms to imitate their exercise movements. “Going down, put your arms around, put ‘em to the side – everybody. And then you have to have enough space to make those exercises. That’s really nice. I really did enjoy that.”
When Perez was finally released from the service, he returned to Uvalde to work with his father, among other things. One day while fishing near his home with some friends on the Nueces River, he met a girl named Sara Olvera. After an eight-month courtship, they got married and settled down. They had 10 children, with whom Perez says he didn’t get to spend as much time with as he would have liked, because he was constantly on the road, trying to maintain the brood’s wellbeing. He did everything, he says, from trimming trees to hauling hay to picking potatoes to, of course, sheering sheep.
“And if I didn’t feel good, I had to [endure] it, because I had to work. So that was it,” said Perez, flashing a big smile. “But it’s nice to be with your family. It’s nice. I like it, being with my family and seeing all you kids, and your grandkids and your great grandkids.”
If there is one value he has tried to instill in his children, it’s that they should do their utmost to get along with others, he says. And one of the best ways to do that, he says, is to be able to speak more than one language.
“If you know two languages, you’re worth two persons, and if you know three, you’re worth three persons; four, four; five, five. So it’s always good to know Spanish and English,” Perez said. “Know two or three languages. You’ll always get along.”
Mr. Perez was interviewed in Uvalde, Texas, on April 7, 2007, by Raquel C. Garza.