It’s been eight years since my father passed, and despite the years, my memory of him and the life lessons he shared have never faded.
Born during a period of poverty and conflict, he shared with me his strong work ethic, an uncompromising dedication to family, and a love of country, humility and service.
Jose G. San Miguel was a great man!
During my youth, I loved sitting on the front porch, especially following a good rain, listening to him tell stories of growing up in Charco, a sparsely populated cattle ranch and cotton-growing community in southeast Texas. Not much of a town, it boasted a population of 150 during its heyday and consisted of a post office, a gristmill, two blacksmiths, three general stores, several churches, a one-room schoolhouse and, until the boll weevil killed the area’s cotton crop, two cotton gins.
Born in the summer of 1921, it was here that my father learned all too soon the realities of growing up dirt poor and having to provide for his mother and younger siblings.
It was the Great Depression, and adding to the crisis were the dust storms that devastated much of the Great Plains region, leaving huge farm populations poverty stricken and in search of jobs.
Bread lines, soup kitchens and homelessness were commonplace; and for minorities, times were even tougher. Racial discrimination was widespread, and they were often blamed for taking jobs and siphoning government relief funds.
The U.S. census of the time reflected the nation’s sentiments - more than a million families of Mexican descent were deported or repatriated, largely through systematic intimidation or harassment. It would be the largest mass removal effort ever promulgated by the U.S. government despite the fact that upwards of 40 percent of them were American citizens.
This may have explained my grandfather’s exodus from the states. And perhaps, this too may have been why my father never spoke ill or held a grudge against him.
Still, it was not for another ten plus years that my grandfather did eventually return. The separation, however, was more than their relationship could sustain and my grandparents divorced.
He would never reintegrate into the family, much less contribute to my father’s upbringing.
It was during this period that my father entered the workforce at just barely 11 years old.
“After your grandfather left, my mother had little choice but to pull me out of school and send me out to the field to work,” my father told me. “It was hard. We didn’t have much, and if we did go to school we went barefoot and hungry. But then times were tough all around. Everyone did what they had to do just to survive; and being the oldest, I had to support the family.”
He worked the fields from sun up to sun down, and by day’s end, there was little time to play. Exhausted and drained, my father would slump on a makeshift bed on the floor, hands scarred and bleeding from picking cotton. Other days, he’d sit on the porch, massaging his aches after laboring all day picking tomatoes, strawberries or hoeing the fields.
“I did what I had to do,” my father would say. “What else could I do?”
This dedication to the family was again tested when the nation entered World War II after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, and he was drafted into the Army.
Without hesitation, Joe, the family provider, reported for duty and for the next three years served with Lima Company, 128th Infantry, 32nd Infantry Division, a Wisconsin-Michigan National Guard outfit, as a “grunt” infantryman island hopping and fighting Japanese soldiers in the hot, humid, mosquito-infested swamps and jungles of New Guinea, Luzon, Palau, Leyte and the Philippines.
Ill-equipped and inexperienced, his unit encountered a well-trained, battle-tested enemy all the while suffering through malaria, dengue fever, dysentery, athlete’s foot, ringworm and other tropical diseases.
Despite the challenges, my father’s success on the battlefield earned him sergeant’s stripes and a squad leader appointment. It had seemed the hardships of his youth had tempered him for the harsh jungle climate; and though he didn’t like to tell stories about his wartime service, he did share with me an incident while out on patrol.
Spying a group of Japanese soldiers resting along the river bank, my father signaled his men to surround, then ambush the unsuspecting enemy. The attack was so swift that the soldiers didn’t have time to respond, and so they surrendered.
It was not until during the interrogation process that he learned how significant this capture was. One of the prisoners was a much valued, high-ranking general of the Japanese Imperial Guard. It was a coup!
That general’s saber is now on permanent loan to a veterans’ museum in Goliad, Texas.
“Leadership wanted to promote me to platoon sergeant,” he said, “but I refused. I didn’t want to be responsible for sending my men out to get killed. There is no worse feeling than having a Soldier die under your watch.”
That decision, he said was influenced by one particular mission when his unit was ambushed and suffered heavy losses.
“The fact that we were hit wasn’t unusual,” he said. “This was just too close, too brutal. The enemy was trampling through the brush and firing their weapons at whatever moved. They weren’t taking any prisoners. We could hear and feel each bullet whiz past and strike the ground and brush to our right and left. There was no way getting around it. I didn’t think we’d make it out alive.”
The encounter forever changed his view of leadership and the inherit responsibility of bringing his men home to their families.
“A bullet grazed my cheek and I could hear the thump as it hit my buddy behind me. It hit him solid in the chest,” he said. “He fell directly on top of me. I will never forget the look on his face as he took his last final breath. I hid beneath him staring at his face until the Japs left. It felt like hours.”
At nightfall, my father said he mustered all the strength to carry his buddy back inside the perimeter where he joined the handful of Soldiers that made it back.
“There was nothing more I could do,” he said. “He was dead. I couldn’t get the look on his face out of my mind. It still haunts me. All I could think about were his wife and kids.”
From then on, my father vowed never to take on any mission he couldn’t go alone.
“I figured I didn’t have much to lose. I was single,” he said. “I didn’t have a wife and kids, and I had plenty of siblings to take care of my mom back home. Besides, I was tough. I could take the heat and move through the jungles faster.”
Once victory in the Pacific was declared, his unit quietly returned to port in California – no ticker tape parade, bands or celebration. It was November 1945. Victory in Europe (V-E Day) was achieved on May 8, and Victory over Japan (V-J Day) on August 14. By the time the last remaining units returned, celebrations had long since ceased.
“I was just glad it was over. We got off the ships and loaded onto trains… and went home,” he said. “And that was that!”
Eight years after the war, my father married the young girl he met more than a decade earlier while picking tomatoes in the fields in Indiana. That relationship would last 58 years until his death on April 20, 2011.
Though he earned it the hard way, my father often said that it was the Army that helped him get a respectable job at Kelly Air Force Base in San Antonio, and a home to raise his family.
“I didn’t have to work in the fields anymore,” he said. “It was a hard job – cleaning jet engine parts – but at least I could provide for my wife and kids.”
Fifty years later, Maj. Gen. Ralph O. Doughty, former commanding general of the 90th U.S. Army Reserve Command, presented the Bronze Star to my father at a ceremony in San Antonio on June 6, 1992, only a day after his 71st birthday.
“It was about time,” my father said following the presentation. “But I was only doing my duty. I did what I had to do.”
Afterward, neighbors and strangers alike would stop to thank him for his service. Many of them hadn’t even realized my father served in the Army, much less fought in World War II.
Humbled by their outpouring of praise and support, he’d smile and humbly say he only did what he had to do.
My legacy is my children, he’d say. “Though, I never finished school, I did provide for the family. They got to experience a childhood I never had. They’ve made something of their lives. I’m proud. What better way to live your life than to make it better for our children. Bueno, bueno!”