By DIONICIA RIVERA
Lying in a cold stream with a bullet wound to his chest, Encarnacion Armando Gonzales felt his body getting weaker and thought his life was over. Surrounded by the enemy in the Aleutian Islands, he had been shot by a sniper.
He dropped his rifle and rolled down a hill into a gully. He knew the sniper was still near, but he could not give up the fight. With all the strength he had left, Armando Gonzales forced himself to his feet and sprinted back up the hill, where he collapsed. His fellow soldiers quickly came to his aid, firing at the enemy while dragging him to safety. Three hours later he was in the medic's tent, and his first thoughts were to send a personal message to his wife so she would not be scared by a telegraph she might receive from the government. That was June of 1943.
More than half a century later, as he relived his experiences in an interview, his emotions ranged from despair to pride.
Gonzales is just one out of the estimated 350,000 Mexican-Americans who served their country during WWII. He served in Company M, 17th Infantry Regiment, 7th Infantry Division (later, after recuperating from his wounds, transferred to the 44th Infantry Division).
Raised in East Los Angeles, he recalled that from his street alone, more than 25 men fought in the war. History tells us many Mexican-Americans volunteered to fight to prove they were really American. Gonzales was no exception, but he also had his future in mind.
"I wanted to be part of something that was happening and for job opportunities," he said. "It was doing something for survival and, at the same time, doing something for your country."
Gonzales did not tell his family he joined the military until right before he left for basic training. After he learned they would have approved of his decision, he felt guilty for keeping the news from them. His parents wanted him to have opportunities they did not, and viewed the military as an avenue for his success.
He was inducted on Jan. 22, 1941.
He was stationed in California when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Before being shipped off to the war, he came home to East L.A. and married the woman who had been his pen pal while he was away from home.
After being shot, he was sent to Seattle and then to Vancouver, Wash., where he recovered in a hospital for six months. When it was decided that he was able to fight again, Gonzales was shipped all around the U.S., from Louisiana to Boston before sailing to Europe.
Most of his days consisted of taking villages and sleeping there for the night, often in foxholes, braving the cold weather.
"It was not a life, so it was not enjoyable," Gonzales said. "It was survival. You get used to misery inside and drink more when the day is over."
Gonzales was honorably discharged from the military on Oct. 11, 1945. He had earned numerous honors, among them the Purple Heart, Bronze Star, Asiatic Pacific Campaign, WWII Victory, American Defense Service and Good Conduct medals as well as a Combat Infantry Badge with star.
He sailed home on the USS Westpoint. Landing in Virginia, he boarded a train and arrived home five days later to surprise his family in Los Angeles. He vividly recalled walking with his wife five miles each way to see his family because they did not have a car.
Although happy to be home, Gonzales could not bring himself to talk about the war until recently because of another pressing matter: Although he had helped conquer the enemy abroad, he had to first conquer the demons of alcoholism that befell him during the war.
"It was great to be home, and a lot of tears, and a lot of adjustment and a lot of drinking. A lot of horrible drinking," Gonzales recalled. "Nowadays people get a lot of help after traumatic situations, but we didn't have that back then."
Gonzales found himself addicted to alcohol for several years after the war. He credits his wife, who took him to meetings of an organization for recovering alcoholics, for saving his life and their marriage.
"My wife hung on. She saved her marriage," Gonzales said. "I learned a lot from her. There's not too many men that will admit that, but I say it with pride. She made me realize I could do things in my life and there was happiness to be had."
As he speaks of his wife, his eyes tear up and he pauses between sentences as though picturing her in his mind. She passed away in 1992 from kidney failure when Gonzales was 72 years old. The year she died would have been their 50th wedding anniversary.
"She had a lot of spirit and then one day she was gone, and I missed her," Gonzales said softly. "When she went, I wanted to die."
Sadly, Gonzales again took comfort in alcohol to cope with his loss.
"Every night I would buy a 12-pack and a bottle of vodka and that would be my supper," Gonzales said. "I did that for about six months, then one day I started having hallucinations. I started to wake up and say my wife wouldn't want me to live this way."
Gonzales renewed his commitment to staying sober. Since that day, Gonzales has turned his life around. He believes that his attitude toward life determines his happiness.
"I try to keep the positive things in life, and that's how I find the joy and happiness today. It's amazing."
Despite his outlook on life, the final hurdle Gonzales had to overcome was being able to talk about his wartime experiences. He believes he could only talk about the war until just recently because he had blocked it out.
"Part of the war I held back was the killing part. I dwelled on . . . the killing [that] had to be done. Either you kill or be killed," Gonzales said. "It's nothing to be ashamed of."
Today Gonzales is comfortable sharing his story. He is involved with Veterans of Foreign Wars, where he met his roommate, Margy. He also had a bust of his likeness commissioned to be displayed at a museum honoring WWII veterans. Assuredly, his most prized possession is a binder filled with telegraphs, pictures and medals from his military years. The binder's first page contains a poem titled "I Am Your Flag," symbolizing for Gonzales the strong patriotism flowing through his veins.
"When you get the goose pimples when they're playing the national anthem . . . this grows into you."
Gonzales now considers himself happy and secure with his life. Despite having fought a war when he was just past his teenage years, losing his wife and battling addiction to alcohol, his positive outlook on life keeps him going day to day.
"We cannot sit back and say, well this happened and we're going to dwell on that for the rest of our lives. That's not life."