By Wesley Monier
To fulfill a promise made many years ago to a young soldier friend killed in battle, Ferdinand “Fred” Gomez named his oldest son Raymond. The two men vowed that if one of them died, the other one would name his first son after the other.
"I respected him a lot," Gomez said of his friend, Sergeant Raymond Valencia. "He never smoked, he never drank . ... He was just a very beautiful role model."
Gomez was born in Fort Worth, Texas, on Dec. 1, 1923, after his parents emigrated from Mexico. His mother and father were married in Mexico, and then moved from Oklahoma to Nebraska to Texas. Fred was one of 12 children, with eight brothers and three sisters. His family moved often, but finally settled in Chicago, Ill.
While in Chicago, Gomez's father worked as a barber and tailor. His mother was busy with her children and didn’t work outside the home.
Gomez remembers living in a Mexican neighborhood in Chicago in 1928. He went to McKinley High School, and was 18 years old when the war broke out. He quit high school to join the service.
In Fort Sheraton, Ill., Gomez was given his physical evaluation as a precursor to enlistment. He then was sent to Arkansas for basic training.
He recalls being at a training camp in Pennsylvania when he found out he’d be sent overseas. After joining the 45th Infantry Division out of Oklahoma, Gomez was sent by ship from New York to North Africa. He remembers being one of a small number of Latinos.
It took 12 days for the ship carrying the Americans to cross the Atlantic Ocean. Although the trip was long, Gomez avoided being seasick. After landing in North Africa, the Americans were joined by other Allied forces in the desert.
While in North Africa, Gomez says he actually liked the food, which was simple C-rations.
The 45th Infantry Division then assaulted Sicily, and Gomez, armed with an M1 rifle, fought against German forces. They then moved on through Italy, being pursued at times by the Germans. Eventually, the tables turned, and it was the Germans who were on the run.
Gomez was struck in his back by shrapnel, but after two weeks, he’d recuperated enough to rejoin his unit and push north. Later, he received the Purple Heart Medal for his wound.
Gomez says the units were segregated during World War II. Blacks had their own separate camps, while Latinos were in Anglo units.
The men were on a point system to have the privilege of returning back to the United States. When a GI received 105 points, he was allowed to go home.
Gomez was able to see the enemy up close and personal. The Germans were more advanced, and had stronger firepower.
"They caught us off guard; they had been preparing since 1936," Gomez said.
He had little to no time for correspondence with his family back home, he says, as they had to constantly be moving, while the mail just piled up.
Gomez estimates he spent 3 1/2 years overseas. He didn’t re-enlist, as he was ready to come home. After a 12-day trip back from North Africa to New York, he was discharged in Miami, Fla., with the rank of Field Corporal.
"They figured we had earned a little vacation. I was there one month," Gomez said.
In addition to the Purple Heart, he earned a Unit Citation Medal.
After Miami, Gomez returned to Chicago, where he became involved in the printing industry. Before he was in the service, he worked at the Chicago Daily Times, which later became the Chicago Sun. When he returned from the war, he worked for the Chicago Sun as a journeyman pressman for 24 years.
In 1946, Fred and Margaret Gomez were married. The two initially rented a house on the south side of Chicago, and eventually had three children. Their oldest son, Raymond, moved to Texas and has been there for the past 25 years, working at Northwest Railroad, which has since become Union Pacific. Their second son, Gilbert, is living in Frankfort, Ill., working in the trucking industry. And their third son, Fernando, lives in Lyons, Ill., and is a supervisor for a billboard company.
Gomez retired at the age of 65.
He says it’s important to tell the stories of those like Raymond Valencia, who lost their lives in the war. He also says he wants to share his tale because it truly needs to be relayed; his war experience changed his life.
"It's an experience you can definitely never buy," Gomez said.
Had he not been in the service, Gomez says he wouldn’t have seen the world, an opportunity he says he’s thankful to have had.
"It was beautiful to see," Gomez said. "Beautiful because I am back."
Mr. Gomez was interviewed in Chicago, Illinois, on September 17, 2002, by William Luna.