By Jennifer Lindgren
"That's a picture of my great-granddaughter," said 81-year-old veteran Andres Ybarra, admiringly pointing out photographs in his home. "That's a picture of my -- all my grandkids and myself over there. And that one over there is when I was in the Army at Fort Jackson."
In the Army photograph, a younger Ybarra looked dignified and handsome in uniform. He fought at Normandy in World War II. A gentle-voiced, polite man wearing large dark-rimmed glasses, he gestured animatedly when talking about his war experiences.
Ybarra says his priorities in life were shaped by his experiences in the conflict.
"People are entitled to their own beliefs, but our country was founded on the belief in freedom for everybody," he said. "If you want to reap the rewards of what our country offers, it is only fair to put out when our country needs your help."
Ybarra’s priorities center on his family: his second wife, Margie Sandoval Ybarra, and the six children he had by his first wife, Vilma Turnine.
Born August 16, 1921, in San Marcos, Texas, Ybarra lived with his parents, two sisters and four brothers. Work in a department store stock room helped him save money for college upon his completion of high school in 1941.
When the U.S. entered the war, Ybarra was inducted into the Army at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas, not far from home in San Marcos. Ybarra received basic training at Fort Benning in Georgia, before packing up and transferring to Fort Jackson in South Carolina for combat training.
After one week, the whole outfit, including tanks, artillery and supplies, was sent overseas from Rhode Island aboard the USS Mariposa.
Ybarra, who served as a rifleman, and his comrades were ordered to guard the supply centers and work on loading boats for the duration of the 8-month assignment in Iceland. The temperatures at night frequently dropped to 30 degrees below zero, and the longer hours of darkness lasted for months.
Again, rumors circulated among the soldiers that they were going to fight in Europe: This time, the British ship Empress of Russia would be taking them to a station area in southern England.
"I always remember the names of the boats," Ybarra said.
Upon seeing camps set up across the area, Ybarra learned he was at a staging area, preparing for crossing the English Channel into France.
"And then everything got exciting," he recalled. "'Pack up your bags!' they told us."
Ybarra heard that both General Dwight D. Eisenhower and Prime Minister Winston Churchill were coming to give pep talks and boost morale, but, coming off a 12-hour overnight shift, he fell asleep instead. He did, however, obtain a photograph of the two leaders visiting the camp. The troops would be fighting in France a few days later in arguably one of the greatest invasions of all time.
"I woke up one morning and there were gliders and airplanes flying all over the sky above us. The invasion was on!" Ybarra said.
His unit loaded onto the British boat Cheshire and moved in across the English Channel to Omaha Beach in northern France. Ybarra became a part of history as Allies launched the Battle of Normandy, a turning point in the war.
"It was rough, everyone in at the same time. The roughest had been the first waves, though," Ybarra remembered. "After that, it was just moving in and moving in. France, Germany, Luxembourg, Holland, the Rhineland and Central Europe ... we just pushed them out."
As a soldier with no experience in combat before joining the Army, Ybarra admitted he didn’t know how to protect himself. All he could do was be cautious.
"I even stopped writing home," he said. "That way, if something happened to me, I thought that my family wouldn't take it so hard if they hadn't heard from me."
Ironically, his plan backfired.
"My aunt told my mother the Red Cross could find out if something had happened to me or if I was all right.
"I was never more embarrassed than when the Red Cross tracked me down," said Ybarra with a chuckle. "They found my unit and made me sit down right there and write a letter home to say that I was alright."
He was on his way to Frankfurt, Germany, when news came the war was over. Ybarra was one of two men in his company who had a high school education, and, toward the end of the war, was given the opportunity to leave his unit and train to be an officer.
"I wanted to stick with my unit, and I knew I was ready to go back home when my time came," said Ybarra, explaining why he declined the offer.
When the war ended, Ybarra was one of only two GIs who remained in the original outfit of 296 men who stayed in the service. He says he feels lucky to have lived when so many died and were injured around him.
"You got used to death and the smell of it," he said. "I could not make myself cry at my grandfather's funeral when I got home."
Germany surrendered May 8, 1945, and Ybarra was formally sent home on the Brandon Victory a few days later. The returning soldiers spent their time on board playing dice and poker and listening to news over the intercom.
Ybarra recalls the great feeling of arriving back in the United States: As the ship pulled into New York Harbor, cars on the highway stopped and honked their horns and boats on the river blew their horns.
"Everyone was celebrating and giving us a salute," he said.
He also remembers his homecoming in San Marcos.
"I walked home and rang the doorbell, and my mother came out," said Ybarra, his eyes filling with tears. "She was so overjoyed.”
He hadn’t seen his family in 29 months.
Upon returning home, Ybarra enrolled in college at Southwest Texas State University (now Texas State University) and earned a bachelor's degree in history. For 33 years, he taught many subjects at various grade levels in schools around Texas.
Glancing again over the pictures of his children, grandchildren and great-grand children, Ybarra reflects on his war experiences and how what he learned will affect his family.
"We've got this young generation of boys and girls ... and all we can do is advise them," Ybarra said. "They are going to make mistakes too, and if they learn from ours, the children will be much better off."
Mr. Ybarra was interviewed in Austin, Texas, on December 8, 2002, by Shamiso Masowsue.