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By Marisa Cano
It was a moment of respite in a time of unease. Joe Medina Guajardo, an Army soldier serving with the 593d Engineer Post and Shore Regiment, was sitting on his tractor in Australia during World War II, when suddenly, he spotted his cousin, Juan M. Sanchez, walking towards him.
Guajardo jumped off his tractor and ran toward his cousin. After two years of separation and in a chance encounter, two cousins who grew up as brothers in Corpus Christi, Texas reunited across the world. They embraced each other, talking and laughing at the same time. But Sanchez couldn’t talk long--he had to return to camp. The men made plans to eat at Sanchez’s camp later in the day. Unfortunately, the excitement and familiarity of family was short lived. When Guajardo arrived at Sanchez’s campsite, there was no trace of Sanchez or his men.
The discovery was disconcerting, but Guajardo was no stranger to rolling with the punches. As a young boy of divorced parents in Corpus Christi during the Great Depression and segregation, he lived mainly with his grandparents on the poor side of town. He had a fourth-grade education, faced discrimination, and had to constantly think of creative ways to survive. With the help of his cousins, he stole bicycles, repaired them, and sold them for profit. He caddied at a country club and found empty bottles for his mother to use to sell homemade beer—anything to keep food on the table and survival a reality.
His creative ambition and survival skills made him a perfect candidate for the Army, which he saw as a ticket out of a broken home. He enlisted on Nov. 2, 1940 at the tender age of 17, and reported to Camp Howze, Texas.
On Nov. 24, 1943, less than three months after he married Edith Perez, a neighbor of his father, in Corpus Christi, he departed from the United States to the Asian Pacific Theater. Meanwhile, Perez resided in Cuero, Texas.
Guajardo’s arrival to the Pacific was a fearful one. “We sat at the bottom of the ship listening to the sound of gunfire, explosions, and bombs, and wondered if we would be hit next,” Guajardo later told his daughter, about his voyage.
Guajardo worked as a construction machine operator. According to Guajardo’s daughter, Grace Charles, Guajardo said, “Our job was to come from behind, after the Marines were done fighting. We would do the cleaning up and pave roads for vehicles, tanks, [and] landing airplanes.”
Still, Guajardo saw plenty of action. ”As Japanese airplanes came down shooting at us, we’d jump into holes made for privies,” he told Charles. Guajardo even lost some friends in battle. “I met this guy from New Jersey,” he told Charles. The man from New Jersey was Guajardo’s first white companion. Before the war, he didn’t have any white friends because of hard feelings resulting from discrimination. “We became good buddies from the very start, fighting side by side,” said Guajardo. “While fighting in the jungles of New Guinea, machine gun fire began and I saw where the machine gun fire tore off his entire stomach.”
Guajardo returned to U.S. soil, with no documented injuries, on Sept. 21, 1945. He received an Asiatic-Pacific Theater Campaign Medal with one bronze star, a Philippine Liberation American Defense Medal, and a Good Conduct medal.
He was discharged on Oct. 18, 1945 at the rank of Technician at Camp Fannin, Texas. Guajardo reunited with his wife and family, including his cousin, Sanchez, who was discharged on June 13, 1945. It turns out, the reason Sanchez’s camp was vacated in Australia was because the Japanese were going to attack the area, and as soon as he returned to camp, Sanchez had received orders to clear out.
Guajardo and Perez went on to have five children: Grace, Amelia, Miguel, Joe and Angelina. He worked in construction. And in fact, he worked for Jim Fawcett, Farah’s Fawcett’s father in the 1950’s in Corpus Christi.
But Guajardo also had many hobbies. Both he and his cousin Sanchez played baseball with Mexican-American baseball teams in the community. He also was a musician who could not read music, but according to Charles, “could play any instrument by ear.” He played with Mexican-American orchestras in nightclubs such as Las Delicias and Casa Blanca. Although he mostly played the trumpet, he occasionally sang as well, and according to Charles, his cousin Juan Sanchez who attended these gatherings said that many times people in the audience would callout Guajardo’s name so that he would sing.
By 1964, Guajardo became a welder and decided that he wanted to move to the country. At this time, four of his children were still in school. He purchased land in Freer, Texas, about 80 miles west of Corpus Christi and built a home. After he retired, Sanchez also relocated to Freer. Guajardo died on Oct. 24, 1984 and was buried at Hahl Cemetery in Freer.
This tribute was submitted by Joe Medina Guajardo’s daughter, Grace Charles.