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War & Locale: World War II -- European Theater
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By Hasive Gomez
Cleaning land mines and building bridges in front of enemy lines leaves little room for luck. Yet former combat engineer Placido Peña says luck is one of the reasons he survived the war under hazardous conditions.
Peña had more than luck on his side, however, as he also says he had an instinct for survival.
“[Some] of the soldiers were lazy;” laughed Peña as he talked about covering for shelter. “They would only dig their foxholes a couple of feet deep. I would always dig deeper.”
Peña’s job consisted of building bridges, cleaning land mines, installing land mines, fixing roads and locating and clearing mines. The work was usually done during the night or under smoke to avoid enemy confrontation. Most of the time, the locations of the highly dangerous operations were done in between the United States and German lines. Combat engineers also participated in battle, if they had to. Peña says the dangerous nature of his job made him realize the most important thing to him was going back home to his wife.
Born Oct. 10, 1919, in Los Arrieros, Texas, 10 miles west of Roma, Peña and his seven siblings attended school during the week and worked on his father’s farm after school and on weekends. Wanting to make his own money, at the age of 17, Peña joined the Civilian Conservation Corps, a work-relief program that was part of the New Deal. He landscaped and later became a supervisor.
After two years in the CCC, Peña decided to go back home. His stay was short, however, as he was drafted into the Army, and was inducted in San Antonio, Texas, on Dec. 2, 1941. Peña says he had only been in the Alamo City for seven days when Pearl Harbor was attacked on Dec. 7. Radios were scarce, so most of the men were gathered in a building to hear President Roosevelt’s plan of action. As Peña recalls suspecting, they would soon be sent off to war.
He remembers the men around him starting to cry, and that all of them were scared. They immediately wanted to see their families, but not all of them had the opportunity.
“They told us we could go home and say goodbye to our families,” said Peña, “but I didn’t have any money so I didn’t go home.”
Tens of thousands of Latinos are estimated to have ultimately died in combat during War World II.
After getting inducted, Uncle Sam sent Peña to Missouri for 90 days of training. He was about to go overseas when the 35th Regiment recruited him as a combat engineer and he had to undergo training for another three
months. His first assignment as a combat engineer was to build the Alaskan highway, a two-year task. Peña says his only significant worries during his stay in Alaska were the possibility of bear attacks and surviving extreme weather conditions.
The 35th Engineer Regiment was reorganized into the 35th and 145th Engineer Combat Battalions on Sept. 25, 1943; each battalion had more than 800 men. Peña became a member of the 145th. His unit within the battalion consisted of 12 men, all Latino with the exceptions of one Italian American and one German American.
“When you’re in battle, each soldier becomes your brother,” said Peña of his companions; “his life depends on your right action. If you go to sleep at the same time, the enemy kills both of you.”
In early or mid 1944, Peña and his unit traveled by sea to Scotland on the New Amsterdam. From Scotland, the 145th landed in Chester, England, and trained. And on June 8, 1944, also known as D+2, Peña and his unit landed in France. They made their way up to Belgium, Luxembourg and, finally, Frankfurt, Germany.
Peña recalls being very scared, especially at the beginning of his deployment in Europe. He says the first time he saw combat in France, he couldn’t sleep for a whole week and ate very little.
He remembers a specific moment in the war when he lost track of time. Peña was so tired he decided to lie down and sleep. He doesn’t recall if he slept for two hours or a couple of days, but he does recalls waking up surrounded by bullet shells and with both his rifle and helmet missing. He thinks his company might have thought him dead and left him behind; however, he says he survived the incident with only a couple of scratches on his forehead.
Peña was discharged Oct. 24, 1945, at the rank of Private. He earned five campaign stars for his involvement in the war.
What meant most to Peña, however, was living a peaceful life in Los Arrieros with his wife, Amanda Gonzalez Peña. After the war, he was a self-employed trucker; he sold produce in different cities across the state.
Peña and Amanda have been married for 67 years, and live in the same house he bought when he got back from the war. They have five children, all of whom he says are professionals in various fields.
Mr. Peña was interviewed in Los Arrieros, Texas.