By Ashley Tompkins
Cipriano Gamez contends he "never did anything outstanding," but many would disagree. His actions speak for themselves and for the thousands of other men who served in World War II.
Born in Belmont, Iowa, in 1922, Cipriano (one of nine brothers) and his parents moved to East Chicago, Ind., when he was a baby. After high school graduation in 1941, Gamez heard President Roosevelt announce the shocking news that Japan had bombed Pearl Harbor.
"Immediately, I wanted to join the Army, but my parents and my sweetheart wouldn't hear of it, so I decided to hold off until they drafted me on Jan. 23, 1943," said Gamez with a smile.
Gamez went through four days of mental and physical health testing and 14 weeks of medical basic training.
"I was trained as a medic, but I couldn't see myself being shot at and not being able to shoot back," Gamez said. "I told the captain that I wanted to do something different and he told me there was a need for medics and that was what I was going to be."
Sometime during his training, a team of parachuters came to the camp looking for volunteers to join. Gamez was impressed with their boots, hats and badges and enlisted with the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment with a guarantee he could be in the infantry and became a member of Company C. They trained at Camp Mackall in North Carolina for five weeks.
There were only three Mexican-American men in Gamez's company and he only saw a few others when he was actually on the battlefield. He says when it came to training, however, they were treated equally.
"The regiment leaders tried to break all of the jumpers down mentally and physically because they wanted us to be our best," Gamez recalled. "I remember once we were getting ready to do a qualifying jump and the sergeant threw a dummy out of the plane and the parachute didn't open. At the time, we were still packing our own chutes and they were trying to scare us into doing it right."
Being 21 at the time, Gamez says he was considered old next to the 19-year-old jumpers. He admits the first jump was the hardest, but in the end, he made 31 jumps and two of those were into combat.
"There was an intense amount of training for the regiment," he said. "We learned a lot about infantry weapons, but we didn't have anything heavier than a .30 caliber."
After training, Gamez boarded the James Parker troop ship on chilly Dec. 27, 1943, and stayed there until January 8.
"There was a gambling game going on in the hold when the signal for lights out came in, and the guys didn't turn off the light," said Gamez with a laugh. "Another war ship signaled the captain to let him know he could see lights on. The captain sent the military police and the shore patrol down to the hold to take care of the problem and they knocked out every light in the compartment with their nightsticks."
After 11 days on the rocky waters, the ship docked at Belfast, Ireland, on Jan. 8, 1944, and the men went through more training. They were then sent to Scotland, where they boarded trains headed to Nottingham, England.
"When I heard that we were going to stay in Nottingham, the first thing that came to mind was Robin Hood," said Gamez with a chuckle. "We were allowed passes into town, where we had some conflict with the British because we had money and the British didn't."
After training for about two months, Gamez found himself "volunteering" to become a pathfinder in late April when a lieutenant approached him. "I didn't know what a pathfinder was, but he told me I'd find out soon enough."
His first jump as a pathfinder was a fiasco at best. The night before D-Day, Gamez was dropped southeast of Chef-du-Pont, considerably off target, and was lost for five days before finding his way back to the regiment. He lived on what he scrounged off of the land, as well as a small box of food and a chocolate bar that could last three to four days.
"It was terrible because there are a ton of hedge walls and the Germans had already taken over the entrances and exits," Gamez recalled. "Once I found my way back, I spent 31 days on the line and then sent back to Nottingham."
Only six of the original 30 platoon members survived, and he was promoted to Staff Sergeant. Some men were taken hostage, died or were wounded. However, during the next campaign, about 20 of the original men rejoined before the invasion of Holland on Sept. 17, 1944.
The invasion jump of Holland was a disaster as well. The British 1st Airborne were massacred in Germany and only 2,500 of 10,000 survived when they were sent in across the Nijmegan Bridge to relieve the British inside.
"That night the third platoon was sent in to escort G2 Intelligence so they could see what was going on," he says. "I ran into three or five Germans who were coming up a side road. Luckily, I saw them first and fired at them with my Thompson submachine before they hit my left arm."
He spent two weeks in the hospital and received the Purple Heart for his actions.
Gamez turned 22 on December 15 and celebrated. The next day was spent recovering, and on Dec. 17, 1944, he received word to move out. The men where sent by tractor-trailers to Belgium for the Battle of the Bulge.
During the battle, a corridor was created to transport men from the front lines to the back. Gamez's regiment was assigned Thier-du-mont Ridge and stayed there December 20-25. After two days, they made contact with the Germans. They pulled back the Army Christmas morning, but were sent to take Thier-du-mont again on January 7.
"After the ridge was taken, we were sent to look for the wounded," Gamez said. "I have never known so much fear. It was a terrible slaughter for us and most of the men were dead or frozen."
After Thier-du-mont, the regiment was trained to liberate prisoners after the war, but they never had the chance. He rotated home and was discharged Nov. 9, 1945. On August 31, 1946, he married his sweetheart, Carmen Negrette, who later gave birth to Dwight and Richard Gamez.
Following Carmen’s death in 1985, Gamez married Esperanza Teresina, who had three children: John, Lou and Mary.
Gamez worked at a steel mill in Indiana as a foreman until he retired.
Furious about the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Gamez says if he were a few years younger, "I'd join [the military] again in a heartbeat. I was raised to respect the flag and I can't explain how much rage I felt."
Mr. Gamez was interviewed in Highland, Indiana, on May 9, 2002, by William Luna.