Thursday, November 14, 2019

Three Days After Veterans Day

All American boys, Aurelio Villa, lower left, unaware of what the future holds. (circa 1940)
by Daniel Cano

From personal journal (and subsequent notes)
Saturday, July 28, 2007
10:36 AM, Brussels, Belgium

It was a last-minute decision to take the train from Brussels to Bastogne. The round-trip ticket is 19 Euros. Cold today. I didn’t bring a jacket, thinking the summer weather would clear. Oh, well.

It took awhile getting the correct information from the ticket agent, her English heavily accented, and she spoke fast. I barely understood her. As I looked at the itinerary, I didn’t understand any of it.
I returned to the ticket counter. A man explained the itinerary. The last leg of my trip will be by bus.
There is no time designated for my return, so I guess I can hop on any bus back to the train station.

Brussels is an international city, people of all ethnicities and nationalities, a large Muslim population, surprising, not like Munich or Salzburg, white Europeans, where I’ve already spent a week.
Fort Bragg, N. Carolina, fully loaded, ready to board plane (1967

I’ve always dreamed of visiting Bastogne because I served with the 101st Airborne, in Vietnam, a proud legacy--they drove it into us, and because of my interest in WWII, where the battle of Bastogne helped change the tide of the war in Europe.

 Kids who go to college hail their alma mater, Stanford, Cal, UCLA, Villanova, Harvard, SC, Yale, etc. In the military, we hail our units, the 1st or 25th Infantry, 101st Airborne, the First Cav, the 173rd Airborne, the 82nd Airborne, Navy Seals, 7th Special Forces Group, and the Marines (all units).
What it took for Mexicans to become Mexican Americans (circa 1944)
I look out the train window as we enter Namur. Must be an important city. It’s fairly large. My itinerary reads Namur-Luxemburg. 11:42

I am scheduled to arrive in Bastogne at 1:30.

The train heads into the Belgium countryside. As I traveled through Europe, moving from one city to another, I’ve put the ghosts of my father’s generation behind me. Now, they are here outside the window. I see American G.I.’s trudging through these farmlands, killing and dying, hoping to topple Hitler and his war machine, hoping to make it home again.

Why America? What if Hitler had defeated Europe, what then? Would he have become the supreme commander of all European forces, fighting until he ultimately defeated the Russians? Can one even consider a Germany composed of other European countries, different languages, customs, and cultures? Greece, Italy and Spain would have driven the Germans nuts. Would he have continued his genocide, killing all Europeans who were not Anglo Saxon? It seems impossible. Germany is smaller than Montana.

The U.S. sent its best to fight Hitler and Mussolini, its native people, from reservations across the country, Chicanos/Latinos, who earned more medals of honor than any other American ethnic group. There were African-Americans, Italian, Polish, and Irish Americans, German and Japanese Americans, who earned more medals than any other ethnic group, ironically, while their families were in American relocation campus.

WWII was an equal opportunity war. What would the U.S. forces have been without ethnic Americans?

Outside my window, Belgium's villages and towns whip past, looking much like they must have in 1945. I envision the Yanks out there marching across the roads and slipping through the dense forests, patrolling the hedgerows, coming under fire, some dying and some fighting on.

I recall the books I’ve read and the movies I’ve seen, G.I.’s slogging through winter snows, their boots held together with strips of rags, fighting off the freezing cold. Young kids from all over the U.S. joined or were drafted to support the war effort, trusting their government to tell them, even if they died and their families suffered for years after, their sacrifice was right, just, and worthy. Yet, many Mexicans, African-Americans, and blacks returned home still unable to find jobs or buy a beer in a white man's bar.
Representing Califas
It was a different time. Not only did the military men suffer and sacrifice during the war, but the entire country sacrificed. There were food shortages, as well as shortages in medicine, electricity, gasoline, and everyday commodities. Families proudly grew fruit and vegetables in Victory Gardens.

In today’s wars, from Korea forward, no one suffers or sacrifices except the men and women in uniform and their families. The rest of the country enjoys itself and continues living normal lives.

I remember when I came home from Vietnam for a 30-day leave. My dad got us tickets to a football game at the Rose Bowl. 90,000 people were going nuts, cheering, drinking, and celebrating. All I could think about were my friends still in Vietnam, out in the jungle, hoping that this day wasn’t the day they’d die. At that moment, I felt our country had betrayed us. Nobody cared.

12:45: Arrival at Libermont.
Waiting outside terminal for the bus to Bastogne. It must be only about a 45-minute ride. An old bus pulls up. Not many folks going to Bastogne. I expected some older Americans, tourists visiting the famous battle site, maybe some veterans.

Each time I we pass a sign that says “Bastogne,” my excitement is replaced by sadness, a lot of confused feelings.

2:00: Bastogne

I just finished walking through the main section of town. It is Saturday, a mad house, mostly Europeans from all countries crowd the sidewalks and streets. This is a party town, restaurants, bars, discount clothing stores, and vendors along the sidewalk, another Venice Beach.

People park their cars in the town’s main square, around a large welcome center made of glass and wood. The only Americans I have seen so far are six muscular young men. Their haircuts tell me they are G.I.s They have a confident demeanor and walk with a slow, cowboy swagger, like they just dismounted from their horses. Their English is a giveaway.

Here indigenous Ecuadorians pass for American Indians. From their sidewalk stalls, they sell Navajo dreamcatchers, cheap wood sculptures, Indian beads, decorative bows and arrows, and every sort of inexpensive, plastic toy for kids. I ask one of them, a ponytail hanging from a wrinkles Stetson hat, if he speaks Spanish. He answers yes, kind of embarrassed. I ask if he imported what he sells or if he just works for someone. He becomes nervous and nods affirmatively, as if the wrong answer will get him in trouble. He moves on to another customer.

I have often told friends who visit Las Vegas and tour European-themed hotels, like the Venetian, how artificial. Why not just go to Europe? I am reconsidering.

Bastogne looks like a European Vegas, the Santa Monica Promenade on a weekend, but then, to be fair, I’ve only seen the town’s center, where bikers fill the streets, their motorcycles parked outside the different bars advertising discount beer. The coffee shops are full. So, this is freedom!

I don’t know how much of Bastogne was destroyed during the war, but what they built around the main square looks like a Hollywood movie set, fake facades and all. It could just be the advertisers' signs splashed everywhere, disguising the real town. I guess this is what tourism has wrought.

Strange how all the other Belgian towns I passed on the way here looked as if time had not touched them, quaint and unspoiled, as if tanks would come rolling down the streets at any time. In some ways, it looks as if Bastogne's leaders tried to make this look the way they thought an American town might look.

It is difficult to imagine this as the place I saw in photos, where, in December, 1944, American paratroopers, weak and exhausted, short on men and supplies, stopped advancing German forces. So many of Americans sacrificed their lives here. I look hard to see signs of that sacrifice. 76,890 Americans died, were wounded, or reported missing after the final battle.

I’m told there is an American memorial about two kilometers outside of town. I button-up my shirt and walk along a footpath, the highway on one side, the woods on the other. I'm on patrol. I pass small farms. In the distance, there are valleys and clumps of forest.

It’s a beautiful monument, the site where the weary paratroopers of the 101st Airborne waited for the Germans to overrun them. The name of each state is etched on the concrete columns. Upstairs, visitors can see the 360-degree vista. Maps show the woods, villages, and valleys where the Germans assaulted the Americans.

I think about my uncle Aurelio Villa, who jumped with the 101st on D-Day, and suffered serious wounds. His brother Nick Villa entered Europe from North Africa at Anzio, Italy with the 82nd Airborne, where he was killed by a sniper taking a drink of water from a fountain.
Eisenhower and paratroopers in war paint and mohawks, D-Day
Because paratroopers received "jump pay," an added stipend to their regular pay and combat pay, many Chicanos and working-class white kids chose to go airborne. I remember the picture of Eisenhower, surrounded by paratroopers, mostly kids, their faces smeared in war paint, Mohawk haircuts. He talked to them before they boarded the planes to jump in Normandy on D-Day. Some say he had tears afterward. He knew many of them would not return.

American servicemen, avid movie-going kids during peace time, loved Hollywood westerns. For courage, as they leaped from the B-14s into Europe's night skies, the paratroopers invoked the name of their native American hero, “Geronimo!”

On that day. the 22nd of December, the German commander offered the beleaguered Americans a way out—surrender. When 101st Airborne's commander, General McAuliffe, received the message, he answered, one word, “Nuts!”

The German commandant did not understand. Another man translated. “It means go to hell.” The Germans began their onslaught to kill all the Americans and level Bastogne, as punishment for their refusal to surrender. It was reported another American commander had said, "They've got us surrounded, the poor bastards."

The American paratroopers held the Germans at bay until Patton’s army, fresh from the Battle of the Bulge, could come in with reinforcements. Nearly 80,000 killed, including British and Canadian forces, and some citizens of Bastogne, who, during the siege, provided shelter, food, and medical aid to the allied soldiers.

Some historians say, had Bastogne fallen, it would have changed the trajectory of the war. The battle brought prestige to Bastogne, and tourism for many years to come. It’s no wonder the people of Bastogne named the town square “McAuliffe Place.”

As I leave, I take a closer look and see the old, mostly two and three-story buildings behind the advertisements. It's still there, the original town, beautiful and strong, 19th century structures, survivors for future generations, a place to celebrate life and people from the surrounding countries come to join in the festivities.

5:50 PM, on the bus back to Brussels I take a seat at the back of the bus. The driver turns up the radio, loudly. REM sings “Losing My Religion.”
They made it home
An Afterthought

As I transcribe these lines from my journal, and add a few notes for clarification, there is a newspaper clipping at the corner of my desk, the story of army private Felix Longoria, a Texas native and WWII veteran.

According to the article, by Carlos Sanchez, "Longoria was killed on June 15, 1945, after volunteering to flush out retreating Japanese in the Philippines.”

Longoria’s body finally arrived home in 1949. His family requested that a local funeral home conduct the services for the fallen soldier. The funeral director refused. He claimed it would upset the Anglo citizens if he buried a Mexican.

When no amount of persuasion would change the funeral director’s mind, Dr. Hector Garcia, another WWII veteran, stepped in wrote letters to newspapers and Texas legislators. Still, the funeral director was unmoved. He did not want to upset the locals.

A young Senator, Lyndon Johnson, who heard about the racial slight, apologized to the family. He told them he was angry and humiliated, but he could not force the funeral home to bury a Mexican. He arranged to have Private Longoria buried at Arlington National Cemetery where he still rests today.

Sadly, some places in this country never change, not even for those who offer the ultimate sacrifice. What is even more unfortunate is that many of us don't know our own history.

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