By Trent Lesikar
“All those bullets and none of them had my name on it,” Emilio Portales said with a laugh. Portales saw action on the front lines of U.S. Army campaigns in North Africa, Sicily, France and Germany during World War II. He survived the 1944 invasion of Normandy, fought in much of the European campaign, and witnessed the liberation of a concentration camp in Germany.
Portales remembers most of his time in the Army, from 1942 to 1945, with a smile and a chuckling quip. He was drafted in early 1942 at the age of 21 and left his mother, Macedonia, and his six siblings, traveling by train from their home in San Antonio to Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri for basic training. One brother, Raul, was already in the Navy, and their brother Regino would later serve in the Army.
“I felt good. I wanted to go,” Portales said about receiving his letter from the draft board.
Portales was educated through middle school and worked delivering groceries for J.G. Groceries before being drafted. At Fort Leonard Wood, he trained as a combat engineer, learning how to locate landmines and how to clear vehicles and bodies from the roads.
He served in the 17th Armored Engineer Battalion, 2nd Armored Division, nicknamed “Hell on Wheels.” After campaigns in North Africa and Sicily, the division eventually moved to England, where he joined them.
“We trained … this and that… and we were waiting for the big invasion of Normandy,” Portales said. His division was among those that landed on Utah Beach on June 7, 1944. His battalion landed on June 10.
“We got off the landing craft and the Germans were up on hills shooting at us. So we kept running and trying to dodge bullets and shrapnel. … We just kept going and going and going until we broke the lines,” Portales said.
After D-Day, Portales said his division kept fighting the Germans until they were at the border of Germany and Belgium. He recalls one battle where he had to stay in his foxhole for at least 28 days. He said it was so cold “your pants would stand up by themselves.”
To break the monotony and lift the morale of the soldiers, Portales said they were sometimes shown movies. “Sometimes they would set up a movie screen in the field just behind the front lines. That’s about all the recreation we had,” Portales said.
Portales and a few other men in his division received a three-day furlough to see Paris. He recalls seeing the Eiffel Tower and not much else. “We just looked the town over a little bit,” he said, “and we had to come back.”
When asked about the differences between ethnic groups in the Army, Portales said, “The difference? There was no difference. We were all the same.” He does, however, recall a story about how his name was always mispronounced. When they called roll, his name would either be pronounced as “Por-tales” or “Portals,” but they finally got it right “because there were a few Spanish-speaking guys in there.”
Growing up in Texas, Portales faced opposition in the school system when he spoke Spanish.
“At home, we spoke both [Spanish and English]. At school, all of us were Mexican-Americans, mostly, but they didn’t want us to speak Spanish, which is still the case. They try to keep away … want you to learn English. That’s the way it was … the way it still is now,” Portales said.
Portales picked up a little German and Italian in the Army. “All I learned was … to say girl … I learned the word fräulein,” he said with a smile. “I learned a little Italian. The Italians weren’t really fighters. They didn’t want to fight so they used to give up in bunches with a white flag.”
One of the things that stuck out in Portales’ mind from his time in the Army was the food. They received C-Rations, which came in a large tin can and contained things like Spam, chicken in a can and “chocolate for energy,” according to Portales. Sometimes they also had a napkin and cigarettes. Portales said he missed the food from back home in San Antonio.
“I used to pray [in the Army]. I never used to pray before,” Portales said. He remembered feeling scared and homesick. He wrote letters home, mostly to his mother, describing the rain and the muddy conditions.
Portales’ most vivid memory from the war was the liberation of POW camps. “One was a regular prison but they had prisoners like Jewish people, mostly Jewish people. They were dressed in stripes, and they were all badly fed. They were skin and bones, and the ones that died, they put them in a big room. They would just throw them in there when they died. There was a pile of dead people in that room. This was in Germany,” Portales said.
He said that he cannot remember the name of the camp but only recalls that it was in a small town in Germany and that it was at the beginning of 1945.
“It did bother me. The smell of the dead people was terrible. And all the prisoners, when they would open the gates, would just run out, the ones that could run out,” Portales said of the liberation of prisoners. “They were all yellow and some of them were dying. They were glad to get out of there.”
Portales was awarded the Purple Heart Medal in 1944 after being hit in the leg with shrapnel. His leg became infected, and he was sent to a hospital in England for a couple of weeks. When the wound healed, he was sent back to his outfit.
“They didn’t send me home,” Portales said. “I was too good to fight!”
Portales also received the Good Conduct Medal and ended the war with the rank of private first class.
He returned home to San Antonio when the war ended in 1945. Two years later, he married Gloria Lopez, and they lived in San Antonio until 1966, when they moved to Sunnyvale, Calif.
“When you come back, you’re glad to come back, but somehow you can’t get adjusted to civilian life. You’re still in the Army,” Portales said. “You dream about [the war] and you think about it. It takes time to get adjusted.”
Once back in San Antonio, Portales used funds from the G.I. Bill to receive training as a plumber, and he worked at Hamilton Plumbing Co. for 11 years.
Emilio Portales died on Aug. 5, 2010, at his home in Sunnyvale, Calif., according to his obituary in the San Antonio Express-News. He is survived by Gloria, his wife of 63 years, and his son Carlos.
Mr. Portales was interviewed in San Antonio on May 13, 2008, by his niece, Patricia Portales.