As a little boy, Alex Rodriguez, Jr. never understood why so many people who know his father, Alex Rodriguez, treated him with the utmost respect.
Later in life, while reading his father’s accounts as an infantryman in the European Theater during World War II, and, later, a prisoner of war in a German camp, Alex began to understand.
Although Rodriguez Sr. passed away in 2006, his son knows he’d be glad his story will finally be known.
“As a prisoner of war, a large part of his motivation to live was so that he could tell his story, his way, of what he experienced,” Alex wrote the Project.
In 1998, Alex Rodriguez, Sr. typed out his story on an old Royal typewriter. This is an adaptation.
Rodriguez grew up during the Great Depression and, like everyone else, was “well seasoned in having to do without many things because there was no money to buy them,” he wrote, “no steady work for our parents, but the discipline was certainly there.”
Perhaps because of that discipline, he joined the Texas National Guard.
On Nov. 25, 1940, at the age of 19, Rodriguez found his unit federalized into the Army. He became a private in the 1st Battalion of the 141st Infantry Regiment, 36th Infantry Division.
Rodriguez recalls being issued his new “Olive Drab” clothing, rifle and field pack.
“Don’t think we were some well-dressed dudes,” he wrote as an aside. “Everything was oversized – oh well!”
Since there weren’t enough facilities to house everyone in the regiment, Rodriguez found himself waking up daily at 3:30 a.m. to report to the Armory by 5 a.m. With no place to leave his field pack, he’d carry it the seven miles from his home to Fort Sam Houston.
For the next two months, the battalion would drill through the streets of San Antonio, Texas.
In January of 1941, orders came to transfer the unit to Camp Bowie in Texas. It was a cold, wet day as the GIs traveled 12 to a truck to the camp, located about 200 miles north of San Antonio.
They arrived to more mud, wet weather and a first sergeant with a shrieking whistle.
In the summer of 1941, the 36th Infantry Division participated in the Louisiana Maneuvers, engaging in war games with about 500,000 other troops.
The former Texas National Guard members were only required to serve one year in the Army, and by November of 1941, some of the unit’s personnel had begun the discharge process. As fate would have it, however, Rodriguez didn’t begin the process until December of 1941.
On Dec. 6, 1941, Rodriguez pulled KP duty.
“About 1 p.m. I was taking it easy in our tent (I was the only one in the tent),” he wrote. “I had borrowed a small radio from one of my buddies and was tuning in on a radio station, when I hear this announcer describing a bombing that had taken place on the Hawaiian Islands.”
Thinking he was listening to a fictional radio program, he settled in to listen.
“I had never heard a program like this before,” he wrote. “I ran out of my tent trying to find someone else to listen to it because I knew no one would believe me later … but everybody was taking a nap.”
It didn’t take long for him to realize that it wasn’t a show; unlike “War of the Worlds,” this radio program was real.
A messenger from Regimental Headquarters soon came to advise the soldiers on the Japanese attack of Pearl Harbor.
Soon, the troops returned to the camp. Changes began to go into effect: Live ammunition was given to all guard duty personnel and, perhaps the most life-altering change for Rodriguez, there would be no more discharges from military service.
Training was accelerated, and in February of 1942, the 36th Division was sent to Camp Blanding, near Jacksonville, Fla.
For the next six months, they began training for jungle warfare, as the plan was to send them to the Pacific Theater. Rodriguez recalls the mosquitoes, snakes and other dangers of Okefenoke Swamp. Maneuvers in the Carolinas came after swamp training and, later, amphibious training off Cape Cod.
Soon the call came for men to train for a special unit.
“Being young, healthy, physically strong and stupid, I volunteered with several other GIs,” Rodriguez wrote.
He began an extensive and strenuous training program for what would later become the Army Rangers.
Rodriguez went through several weeks of training, and soon they began to form cadres to train others. Rodriguez elected to stay with his company.
On April 1, 1943, he boarded a troop train for Staten Island. The next morning, the ship took him into the harbor, past the Statue of Liberty, “… and out to the open waters.”
Rodriguez’s ship, the USS Brazil, was part of a convoy crossing the Atlantic. The trip was largely uneventful, yet far from unexciting, he recalls:
About eight days into their voyage, a fellow GI screamed that the ship behind them had Canadian female soldiers onboard. Everyone went running to the end of the boat. The ship housing the women was about three-quarters of a mile to the rear of their own.
“I believe the forward end of our ship must have raised itself ten feet out of the water,” Rodriguez wrote.
The trip was not without its dangerous moments, however. The next morning, the gun above the galley of their ship went off, and word spread of a possible torpedo attack.
“Sailors on board the troop ship told us that it would take an enemy submarine seven minutes to load, aim, fire and hit target, so the ships were changing course every six minutes,” he recalled. “I supposed we will never know if we were told the truth, or [if] we were told that theory to keep us calm.
“I suppose it was a welcome to WWII.”
Rodriguez eventually found himself in North Africa. During his time there, he volunteered for missions, and in the months that followed, his regiment processed, guarded and shipped out German and Italian prisoners of war.
In September of 1943, orders for the 36th arrived: They would take part in the Invasion of Salerno.
Rodriguez recalls seeing aerial reconnaissance photos in order to prepare for battle.
“That night, no one really rested, it was like a huge pall of silence falling over us,” he wrote. “No one was joking or popping off as customary, concern could be seen all over our faces.”
Rodriguez says he wondered about the events that led him to that moment. He thought about happier times at home with his family, as well as the places the Army had afforded him to see.
The chaplain gave a blessing as the men began to move out. Rodriguez took a moment to pray for himself and his friends.
“As scheduled, the first wave of combat troops from the 1st Battallion, 141st Infantry Regiment 36th Infantry Division landed on the shores of Italy,” he wrote, “… and a lot of us wished we’d never been born.”
Rodriguez recalls the carnage as the troops made their way onto the beach.
“It’s pure hell to see your friends and buddies die before they had a chance to fight back, some died in the water, some on the land. The fighting was very fierce and we couldn’t see a damn thing in the dark.”
The battle continued to rage. Rodriguez’s objective was to take a bridge they’d seen in the photographs. Despite getting hit by shrapnel, he managed to proceed toward the target.
They heard the sound of tanks advancing. Thinking for a moment that Army tanks were coming to aid them, Rodriguez sighed in relief.
“We saw numerous Mark IV Tiger tanks coming out of the dry arroyo … they were about 400 yards away,” he wrote.
Unfortunately, Rodriguez and his comrades were soon surrounded by German soldiers.
“Staring into the muzzle of a war tank with your enemy inside can be very traumatic, especially one that close. It’s very hard to explain how you feel inside your body, but in this game, everything is fair, you’re on your own.”
The POWs were interrogated by a German officer, while artillery fell nearer and nearer. They were led further behind enemy lines, by a soldier who let slip that he and his fellow Germans had been waiting for the attack for six days.
Rodriguez was surprised by the admission:
“Just exactly how old were those aerial photographs … and why did we run into such a horrible nightmare?” he wondered.
Shortly after he was captured, his mother received a dreaded telegram. The message was brief: “Dear Mrs. Vicenta Rodriguez, We regret to inform you that your son Alex B Rodriguez is reported as Missing In Action. Signed Franklin D Roosevelt, President of the United States of America.”
The Germans marched Rodriguez and his fellow POWs further into Italy on their way to Rome. More American and British prisoners joined their ranks. Bombs and bullets continued to rain down.
Rodriguez recalls a squadron of American P-38s swarming toward them:
“Fighter planes and all of us scrambled for dear old life,” he wrote. “It’s strange that when death is so close to you, everybody becomes friendly, suddenly everything is forgotten and the only important thing is to stay alive.”
When the POWs reached Rome, they were loaded into boxcars. They were taken to Stalag VIIA, where their uniforms were taken from them, and a week later were sent to Stalag IIB, near Furstenberg, Germany.
While in the boxcars, the soldiers received little to eat and got scant rest. Many became ill and the only comfort the men could give was the water from their canteens.
“These men are like family to you, you soldiered with them and you would do anything you can to save their lives because they would do the same for me,” Rodriguez wrote.
While on their way to Hammerstein, Rodriguez recalls their train stopping in the marshalling yards – an easy and obvious target for Allied bombers.
Rodriguez and his buddies survived a bombing and the train continued.
When they arrived in Hammerstein, the German soldiers processed Rodriguez into the camp, issued him a German dogtag and took a photo of him. Stalag IIB, located about one and a half miles outside Hammerstein, would be his home for the next two months.
The camp provided few comforts; food was scarce and not always appetizing. Rodriguez wrote that as a treat, they were served “mechanized peas” – cooked peas swarming with black weevils.
“Don’t think for a moment that we didn’t eat them, bugs and all down the hatch. Anything to survive.”
When the Germans sent him to Stalag IIB, Rodriguez, an uncommissioned officer, was separated from the enlisted men. He was reissued an American Army uniform through the Red Cross. Again, the food was terrible and the men’s main comfort came in the form of a radio, Rodriguez says.
An American with knowledge of short-wave radios had built a ham radio in their building. The men would listen to BBC broadcasts and pass information to one another. Even though they were threatened, beaten and left out in the cold, not one soldier betrayed the location of the radio.
“The days in a POW camp are dark, dismal, bitter and lonely,” he wrote. “But I suppose it takes seeing some of the brutal ways a human being is treated and can easily die while in the hands of an enemy country that makes a person immensely appreciate your country.”
The American soldiers were more heavily guarded than the other prisoners. Regardless, Rodriguez decided he would risk death to get food for his starving comrades, sneaking into the section designated for French soldiers and managing to barter a few items for cigarettes. On his second attempt, he was nearly caught. Because of his attempts, he managed to make friends with some of the French prisoners.
When a letter came saying his father had died, he reacted swiftly and perhaps rashly, deciding he’d attempt escape. He made his way to the French prisoners’ compound, wearing a French uniform over his American one – an action that could have resulted in his being shot as a spy.
The French advised him on how to get away and wished him luck; Rodriguez was on his own. He ventured about 15 miles away from the camp, but was soon sniffed out by a German Sheppard accompanied by German soldiers.
Rodriguez was taken back to the stalag and sent to solitary confinement for two weeks. While in solitary, he ate bread and water; every fifth day he received a cup of mechanized peas.
“When I was released from solitary confinement I was so skinny I could plainly see my own skeleton,” he wrote.
Upon his return, his buddies rallied round him, gathering what little food they had to help him recover.
“I am not ashamed to admit it, but I broke down and cried like a baby,” he said.
In January of 1945, the Germans announced the POWs were moving.
Rodriguez estimates 800 to 900 men marched in the freezing temperature, eating snow off the ground, and, occasionally, cooked barley and bread.
They arrived at Stalag IVA, approximately 70 miles outside Berlin, where they slept in tents on the bare ground.
After about three nights, they asked for hay to sleep on. Rodriguez says they would have been better off sleeping on the ground, as the hay they received was infected with lice.
The radio, which had been dismantled and rebuilt, delivered some bad news in April of 1945: President Franklin D. Roosevelt was dead.
As April passed, signs of the nearing war became apparent. B-17s and B-24s were seen flying overhead, and a Russian reconnaissance patrol was spotted near the camp.
One day, Rodriguez and his comrades found themselves unguarded, as the Germans had left the camp in order to fight or flee the Russians.
“No guards anywhere, you should have heard the roar that came from the GIs,” he wrote. “Some of us acted like five-year-old kids when they get a new toy, others cried, prayed and jumped with happiness.”
With the guards gone, Rodriguez and his friends broke into the offices in order to destroy the files on American personnel. He was able to recover the photo taken of him more than a year and a half before.
“He actually carried that photo of him at the POW camp for approximately 30 years and one sad day he lost it,” his son, Alex, wrote. “He said that he felt a part of him died that day.”
The men’s jubilation was short-lived, however, as they were unarmed and in the middle of a combat zone. They tied whatever white rags they could find to the barbed wire fences in order to declare themselves neutral ground.
As the fighting intensified around them, they dug trenches with whatever they could find and took cover when planes dropped bombs and bullets.
Soon, the German forces were replaced with Russians.
The camp was liberated.
“The day of reuniting ourselves with our families was beginning to form into reality,” he wrote. “Even though a guy is in the dumps, the thought of being liberated seems to send a certain surge of strength through your body, the will to keep going, happiness to feel like a human being and not like a mistreated animal.”
Rodriguez and a GI from Kentucky decided to make their way to the American camps. They didn’t walk far when, in a field, they came across German planes and trucks, even loaded with ammunition in some cases.
“History was unraveling right before our eyes,” he wrote. “We didn’t realize it at the time, that we were right in the middle of a vast piece of history.”
The two walked for days, with little food. Their feet were bloody and swollen inside their boots.
Soon, they were joined by their fellow GIs, some of whom had survived the POW camps. One of their crew found a canoe and the group crossed the Elbe River, braving the strong current, which could have drowned them.
They’d reached the other side of the river and walked about 400 yards when they heard a familiar command in American English – “Halt!”
Rodriguez and his fellow soldiers identified themselves as former POWs and American soldiers.
They were taken into the American camp; Rodriguez was transported to an American field hospital near a liberated concentration camp. He recalls the smell in the air and says he initially thought the ovens where bodies had been burned were ammunition igloos. Soldiers who knew better soon set him straight.
General Dwight D. Eisenhower landed in the airfield near the hospital and came to shake hands with the former POWs.
“We had not been forgotten,” Rodriguez wrote.
The men were flown to a hospital in Birmingham, England, where Rodriguez had every comfort he’d lacked in the stalags: clean sheets, clean clothes, a soft bed.
“Believe it or not, I just couldn’t go to sleep, about midnight I finally got up, got my pillow, crawled under the bed on the concrete floor and went to sleep inside of five minutes.”
A nurse woke him up a few hours later and admonished him.
“This nurse[,] who was just doing her job and performing her duty, didn’t quite understand where we had been, and what we had been through.”
For the next few nights, Rodriguez hid from the nurse and slept on the floor behind a sofa in the ward. Soon, his body and his feet began to heal.
The military gave Rodriguez and his friends a two-week furlough in London, and Rodriguez had a chance to see what his teachers had described to him in history classes. After their trip, they boarded boats and sailed home.
“The return to freedom is something very hard to express in words because there are different types of freedom in many different ways,” he wrote. “It is a deep mental and physical happiness that surpasses all descriptive words … in Webster’s Dictionary, a reward equal to none, to be free.”
Rodriguez was honorably discharged in September of 1945 at the rank of Sergeant. He then entered the civil service, working for more than three decades in San Antonio’s four military installations: Fort Sam Houston, Randolph Air Force Base, Lackland Air Force Base and Kelly Air Force Base, which has since closed.
Before shipping off to war, Rodriguez lived next door to the Perales family. Their daughter, Lydia, was 15 years old when he left, but when he returned, he found her to be a charming young lady.
They married Feb. 16, 1947, lived in San Antonio and eventually had two children: Alex Rodriguez, Jr. and Delia Rodriguez. Alex recalls asking his father how he’d managed to survive the brutal treatment in the POW camps.
“He would smile and … tell himself in Spanish ‘No te rajes cabron,’ – Don’t give up, damn fool,” wrote Alex, adding that his father’s belief in God helped him tremendously.
In his memoirs, Rodriguez wrote he suffered from flashbacks of his experiences in the camps. He found comfort in the words he repeated to himself in those days:
“Life is a gift from God,” he wrote. “Take care of it, for there shall never be another.”
Adapted by Raquel C. Garza from the unpublished memoir of Alex Rodriguez, Sr.