A proud son remembers his Father. A World War II veteran was laid to rest on September 13, 2001. My Dad. Audelio Rivera, Sr. was buried with full military honors at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery per his wishes. My dad was born in 1916 to Mexican American share croppers. He survived the Spanish flu epidemic, the stock market crash of 1929 and the depression which followed it and he survived the polio epidemic. My Dad's president was Franklin Delano Roosevelt. By all accounts, he was a good son to his parents and a devoted sibling to his brothers and sisters. He loved baseball. After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, My Dad was drafted in January 1942 and was the first in his family to answer the call. He was too young and naive to realize the suffering he would endure and how his life would change. It is therefore important to me that I give an accurate account of my Dad and his life. His experience overseas during the War and his conduct as a soldier in the face of the enemy in battle would shape him for the rest of his life. Some 500,000 Mexican American men would fight in segregated units during World War II and were the most decorated soldiers of any ethnic group of World War II.
For years, many schools and Universities remained closed to Mexican Americans after the War. My dad, along with thousands of Mexican American men who were drafted into World War Il and fought for this country, some giving their lives, others wounded by physical or emotional trauma never received the respect they so richly deserved until the modern era. If you were drafted into World War II, you left home until you were dead, wounded to the point where you could not return to duty or the war ended.
My Dad, went to war on March 8, 1942 as an Anti- Aircraft Artillery gunner with Battery C of the 434th AA Battalion. After his training at Camp Huled, Texas, he shipped out by train to New York, then by ship to England to guard the B-17 Flying Fortresses stationed there with the United States 8th Airforce. In the Fall of 1942, a decision was made by Allied Commanders to invade North Africa and fight the Germans there first. It would be remembered as "Operation Torch." My Dad's Anti- Aircraft Battalion was sent from England to Tunisia in April 1943 to May 1943 to provide Anti- Aircraft support "Ack Ack" during that battle. On May 13, 1943, the Axis forces surrendered to U. S. Commanders. Some 275,000 Axis soldiers were taken prisoner of war which greatly reduced the military capacity of the Axis powers During the battle to take North Africa, 2,715 U.S. servicemen were killed, 8,978 wounded and 6,528 missing in Action, 2000 tanks were destroyed and the United States lost 1,400 aircraft. My Dad suffered an appendicitis after the battle and lived to fight another day. On October 10, 1943, my Dad boarded a ship headed for Naples, Italy, but this time as a front line infantryman. More infantrymen were needed to fight the Germans in Italy so My Dad's A Battalion was converted to infantrymen which meant he now had to fight on foot from Naples, Italy and the Foggia Airfield, code-named Operation Avalanche, October 10, 1943 to January 21, 1944 then towards the Rome-Arno River campaign code named
Operation DIADEM from January 22, 1944 to September 9, 1944 in an effort to tie down German forces in Italy during Operation Overlord, then capturing Rome. However, the fight to destroy 23 German divisions was not over. My Dad's unit continued the fight onto the North Apennines Mountains. The Germans were defending and the Allies were assaulting day after day, week after week and month after month. Combat infantrymen knew all too well that a frontal assault against a fortified enemy position was the most challenging assignment given. Statistically, the advancing fighting unit had a 3-1 disadvantage. The terrain favored the Germans and they made our troops pay a heavy price for every inch of ground with mortars, artillery, machine guns, grenades and rifle fire. The Apennine Mountains had deep valleys, foggy hollows, and rain swollen streams and rivers which slowed the Allied advance and my Dad's regiment to a crawl. My Dad and his regiment endured icy winds, torrential rains; hauling their own ammunitions and supplies up and down steep mountainsides where vehicles and mule trains were unable to negotiate the few crude tracks or rocky crags, all the while being shot at and bombarded by German artillery. My dad and his troops lived in impoverished shelters, supply lines would be cut off for a time and the men would endured hunger, cold rations, lack of ammunition, suffered from exposure, frost bite and trench foot. My dad spoke once of the time during the Italian campaign where all he and his unit had to eat were unripe tomatoes they came across near a small village which they ate for three days. The Allied forces combined had 14 U.S. divisions and 6 British Divisions available to attack 23 German Divisions in North and South Italy. The Naples-Foggia military operation was the beginning of what became a very difficult and bloody campaign march up the Italian spine. Winter battles were especially brutal. When it rained, the fighting was bogged down due to mud and lack of air support due to cloud cover. The German artillery was exceptionally accurate and savage against Dad's positions. Before the battles ended in Italy, the U.S. 5th Army would engage in 602 days of combat. The human cost in American lives for the 5th Army would be 188,546 combat casualties of which 19,475 U.S. servicemen were killed. My Dad and his unit fought until the German surrender in Italy on May 2, 1945
Five days later, on May 7, 1945, Germany surrendered unconditionally to the Western Allies ending the War in Europe. In the end, the human cost of World War II was 20 to 25 million Soviet Union people killed, 15 million Chinese killed, 6 million European Jews killed, 3 million killed in Poland, 2.5 million in Japan killed, 2 million in India due to famine and the USA losses were 671,278 wounded in action and an estimated 407,000 killed in action. Not all military personnel in World War II were soldiers in combat infantry. It is estimated that approximately 10% to 20% of an Army actually do the fighting with rifles, machine guns, grenades, mortars, hand to hand combat and trench knives. The remaining part of an Army (which is essential) are supply clerks, truck drivers, cooks, and the like. Although critical, they are hardly bellicose. For the Infantryman, positioned in the forward combat units, the war meant death or injury in hellish and undignified circumstances. Julius Cesar wrote, "Terror robs men of their power of reason and judgment and impairs their physical capacity." The frontline infantryman knows all too well that the primary emotion on the battlefield was shear absolute terror. The horrors of ground warfare is something never forgotten. The camaraderie is a testament to the common bond shared by fighting men and a special partnership between the rifleman on the ground, the artillery and the bombers helping to protect them from the enemy. For my Dad, surviving World War II was the quintessential moment of his life. Returning home after the experience must have been a sober, somber and painful time for him. For many World War II veterans, their innocence was taken in the most brutal way imaginable. By all accounts, my Dad struggled with his emotional trauma from the war for years. He would turn to alcohol for several years trying to drown the mental anguish, wrestle with his demons, plagued by nightmares and painful reminders of his gruesome experience and lost comrades in arms.
His honorable discharge reads that he participated in the battles for Tunisia, Sicily, Naples-Foggia, Rome-Arno and North Apennines. He received the EAME Campaign Medal with 5 Bronze Stars and on March 1, 1945, he was awarded the Combat Infantry Badge at Gallicano, Italy with the 473rd Infantry Regiment. A plaque in Nicola, Italy commemorates the memory of the 161 U.S. soldiers in my Dad's Regiment who gave their lives so that Italy would be free of Fascism. Most Americans, civilians in particular, my Mom included, could never understand what my Dad was exposed to and suffered during the war. I began to understand him better once I studied the battles of World War Il in Europe. I remembered a passage in Henry V, where he stated "He today who sheds his blood with me shall be my brother and gentlemen in England now a-bed shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here and hold their manhood cheap while any speaks that fought with us upon St. Crispin's Day." I believe there was a sense of absolute pride and duty knowing he was fighting for something crucial and for ideals bigger than he him. Most World War II veterans who engaged in combat and survived the war had a common way of coping with their experience; they didn't talk about it to anyone other than another veteran of the War. So like so many other men of his great and noble generation tempered by the War, he tried his best to bury the ghastly images and sounds so deep that they wouldn't surface to send him back to a darkness and hell only combat infantrymen knew all too well. By 1952, my Dad began to collect himself, courted my Mom and married. Together my mom and dad had 6 children. We, as future generations must never forget not only the human cost of this dreadful War, but those who returned to try and make sense of the world they lived in despite the experience that left a generation of men numb to the world that made sense to them at one time in their life. My Dad loved his family and worked 7 days a week for as long as I could remember. In retrospect, I am sure he rationalized the hell he encountered in war with everyday work and raising a family. Nothing in civilian life could ever compare to his wartime experience. The brothers in arms he lost to the war taken in the prime of their youth was something he would never forget. When I was 12 years old, we were driving past Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery and he informed me with a very somber face that he would be buried there one day pointing at the direction of the Cemetery. I understand his decision and I take great comfort knowing he is there with his brothers in arms. Rest in Peace Dad. I am the man I became only because I had your shoulders to stand on. I thank you for your service and sacrifice. JESSE G. RIVERA, BA, MA,JD