Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Memorial Day 2023: Remember the Chicano Who Won WWII?

This column originally ran in September 2019. My father saw Europe through the gunsights of a .30 calibre machine gun. He fondly remembered a big house overlooking the arches on the beach of Etretat, Normandy. The Army billeted the victorious soldiers there on the cliffs. That house was one of two good memories Dad shared with me through the years.

Michael Sedano

“What the Hell is that doing there?” My dad’s vehemence wasn’t unusual but this time his irritation rang with something else. The cover of the big thick book had the Nazi swastika against a white circle. I recognized what I’d done and snatched the volume off the table and hid it away spine-first. I thought the author had been stupid to put that piece of crap so blatantly out there, but then, I knew my dad’s stories, and the symbol sold books about the 16-year old war.

I was probably 5 when I first heard about my daddy’s war. This puts my Dad only 5 years distant from the last days of World War II, 6 years from being an orange picker with a high school diploma. He was picking la naranja again, and smudging in winter, with 2 kids and a Good Conduct Medal.

Dad showed me the armbands, some fotos of dead German soldiers, a newspaper foto of his smiling face sticking up from the tank. He looked so young, even to my mocoso eyes. He told me haunting stories about killing people. About the dead German tank commander said to bear an eerie resemblance to my father's face. A barn filled with machine-gunned civilians. It was war.

They were never going to get rich on an orange picker's sueldo
but that didn't stop my Dad from 100-box days when the
grove was good.
Dad sat in the machine gunner’s forward post on 19APR45 when his tank, the C’est la Guerre, led the 69th Infantry Division to the front door of Leipzig City Hall. The war was won. If you saw the movie, Patton did it all by himself, casí. “We gave it back,” my Dad told me as he closed the shoebox of memories.

Dad wouldn’t have been the first GI inside the building, but as the machine gunner riding in the nose of that tank, my Dad was the closest GI to the front door when the driver set the brakes and WWII was over. A Chicano won WWII. My Dad never said that. William L. Shirer went that whole book and didn’t say it. I say it: A Chicano orange picker from Redlands California won WWII in Europe. It’s true.

By the time the Army allowed my dad and his platoon into the building, all the good stuff was gone. Rank has its privileges. A few worthless German marks littered the floor, some brand new Nazi armbands. Here's a chrome bayonet that slicks in and out of a decorative sheath, in all likelihood the guy who wore it in a goose-stepping parade was killed during the assault.

This is the crew of C'est la Guerre, the first U.S. tank
to reach Leipzig City Hall, where this bill littered the floor.
Dad autographed a one hundred thousand Mark bill and sent the loot home to Berdoo. Germany was printing money at will and the bill looks like it's fresh off the printing press.

C’est la Guerre’s crewmen signed a one hundred mark bill. Along with my Dad, these are the first GIs to reach Leipzig City Hall. History has forgotten these warriors. Somewhere a family has a similarly autographed bill. I hope they know it's a treasure.

McCann, the Loader on C'est la Guerre, remained in contact with my father the rest of their lives. Just as dementia was seizing my Dad's future, they'd planned a reunion so my nearly-blind Dad could view the Fall colors back east. When McCann died, my mom decided my Dad didn't need to know that. She said goodbye to Mrs. McCann for us. Thank you for your service.

Two armbands complete the collection. A variety of GIs signed their names and addresses. I looked up a couple. The address in Chicago is a building erected in 1900. It stands. I know one GI who returned there after WWII. Hillsboro TX buried a man whose particulars suggest he was with the 777th Tank Battalion that day in Leipzig. Another Chicano who won the war. Chippewa III 22 signed both armbands.

I am happy my Dad did not downsize his Army souvenirs. I’m downsizing my possessions and happened upon my Dad’s last Army stuff, the memories he kept in his strongbox. Dad, I won’t let go of your memories. I’m not waiting for VE Day to say “thank you for your service.” And I add, thank you for holding in those nightmares. I remember your stories, I understand holding it in can break a man. You did that for us.

The last time I sat with my father in his bedroom at home, his mind was back in the field. He wanted to reset the firing stakes for their new position. He was on the road to Leipzig, resting now, dug in and ready. I could hear it in his voice.

69th Infantry Division, 777 Tank Battalion, on the road to Leipzig, April 1945.
The soldier stands over the machine gunner's hatch.

U.S. Army tank C'est la Guerre in Leipzig, Germany April or May 1945

C'est la Guerre and other armor, Leipzig, Germany, April or May 1945

Swastika is too offensive to feature on La Bloga


Thelma T. Reyna said...

One of your best blog postings of all time, Em Sedano. This is poignant, heart-rending, and incisive, all while being told in a calm, controlled voice (POV). You've taken a happenstance of war and have unearthed in it an impactful possibility--being the Chicano who won the war. Out of randomness come momentous realizations. Yes, your dad may have just been that last warrior entering the place where peace prevailed. And if he wasn't, he was close enough to warrant symbolic credit--and pride in his bravery--to count it as such. Your depiction of your dad is pure poetry: toughness and vulnerability. He hid his nightmares from you all because of his love for you. Thank you for writing this and for sharing it with all of us. We didn't know all these untold aspects of war. But now we do.

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