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Cruz Rios (left) and Gilbert Rodriguez (right) on a break at Camp Swift, Texas, 1944. Photo courtesy of Val Rios

Cruz Rios (left) and Gilbert Rodriguez (right) on a break at Camp Swift, Texas, 1944. Photo courtesy of Val Rios

  • My Father’s War: WWII through the Lens of a Latino American Soldier

    My dad, Cruz F. Rios Jr., passed away in May 2016 at the age of ninety-seven. He lived a long and blessed life and was indeed of “the Greatest Generation.” Dad served with the 87th Regiment, Company K of the 10th Mountain Division. Their motto was vires montesque vincimus, which means “strength to conquer mountains.” Whether literal or figurative, Dad overcame a few “mountains” during his lifetime.

    In his early years, Dad spoke only Spanish. He had to overcome a language barrier as the words of his teachers and classmates were only babble to him. But by the third grade, he had learned enough English that a whole new world seemed to open up to him. He told me he loved taking the trolley car to the library in San Bernardino, California, to check out the books he could finally read.

    However, my grandfather, Cruz Rios Sr., would not allow his son to finish ninth grade. He did not believe that having an education would help a Mexican. He told my dad, “all you need to know is how to put your name on paper, that’s all.” Dad would often tell me how sad it made him feel to watch the yellow bus taking kids to school while he remained working in the fields. I think, as a result, all three of his children and all ten of his grandchildren are college educated!

    Another “mountain” to conquer was prejudice. Dad experienced some of the name calling—“spic,” “wetback”—but he was also poisoned by the beliefs of his father, who had a distrust for white men and believed that Mexicans would never be equal with white people. In basic training, he again experienced name calling, but saw that all men experienced it, not just him. The drill sergeants disliked all the enlistees!

    But when dad joined the 87th Regiment at Fort Ord in Monterey County, he told me that the men treated him “like a brother.” It made no difference that he was of Mexican decent. He was disheartened, though, when the 10th Mountain Division based at Camp Swift, Texas, would go into Austin on weekends and see signs at restaurants that read, “No niggers, no Mexicans, no dogs.” A few months later in Italy, he was often greeted with a kiss on both cheeks.

    Before the battlefields of Italy, it’s man versus mule: Cruz Rios on a training mission in 1944 at Camp Swift, Texas. The mule is laden with mortar ammunition.
    Photo courtesy of Val Rios
    A villager carries straw, her children by her side.
    Photo by Cruz Rios Jr., courtesy of Val Rios

    These experiences shaped his treatment of others. Both he and Mom modeled acceptance and openness of all people, and I don’t ever recall hearing prejudicial or racist remarks from them.

    The greatest mountains to overcome were the Apennine Mountains of Italy during World War II. The Gothic Line, stretching across Italy from east to west, was held by the Germans and their leader, General Albert Kesselring. Beginning on February 19, 1945, at Mt. Belvedere and Riva Ridge, the 10th Mountain Division pushed the Germans into the Po Valley and then out of the lake region. For them, the war ended there on May 2, 1945. One thousand men were killed in action, and just over 4,000 were wounded.

    Dad was both proud and humbled at the accomplishments of the 10th Mountain Division, and was deeply moved by the death of his foxhole buddy, Fred Palmer. The last thirty years of his life were spent in gratitude and fellowship with members of his division, attending as many events as he could. He returned to Italy four times, each time paying his respects at Fred’s grave at the American Cemetery near Florence.

    I remember when I was about twelve, looking in my parents’ closest I noticed several closed boxes. Inside, there were over 200 Kodachrome color slides. They were photos my dad had taken during the war. Years later I had them digitized, and in 2003 I took them to Italy in search of the people and places in the photos. This has been a truly remarkable adventure, resulting in a book, In My Father’s Foxholes and Footsteps. I’ve established many Italian friendships as a result of these slides, and a number of Dad’s photos are on exhibit in museums in Italy and Slovenia.

    Gallery

    Click on the photo above to view full slideshow

    I cannot express in words the impact my father has had upon my life. Even though we didn’t have all those bonding moments that fathers and sons have growing up, I have truly come to love my dad in so many other ways.

    During the Vietnam War, I made the most difficult decision of my life: to register as a conscientious objector. Most of my family disapproved of my decision, but the one person who remained at my side was my father. He had witnessed the horror of war and supported my decision to follow my conscience.

    Dad and I often took road trips together. I took him to a number of 10th Mountain Division events, family reunions, and visits with relatives in San Bernardino and Las Vegas. During these trips he would often talk about his time in the war and answer questions I had about his past. It was fitting, then, at Dad’s funeral last year, that I was the only one to ride in the hearse carrying his casket to the cemetery. It was our final road trip together.

    Val Rios is a high school counselor living in Fresno, California. He is also a proud son and past president of the 10th Mountain Division Descendants, Inc. In 2017, the group made its latest journey back to the hill towns of Italy where their fathers once fought.

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