By Paul R. Zepeda and Maggie Rivas Rodriguez
Four stars hung in the front window of the house of 1608 Ave. L in Bay City, Texas, during WWII. Each represented a son of Guadalupe Zepeda, who fled from San Luis Potosí¬, Mexico, because he didn't want to take part in the Mexican Revolution, and Lina Rodriguez, who grew up in the area of San Marcos, Texas.
The couple settled in Bay City, Texas, where Guadalupe worked for the Santa Fe Railroad and his wife helped raise vegetables, milk cows and 40 chickens. They had 11 children: Robert, Daniel, Rebecca, Elí¬as, Isaac, Ester, Ruth, Sara, Marta, James and Paul. It was a close-knit family, faithful to their Presbyterian Church and hard workers. With so many mouths to feed, it was soon necessary for the older children to drop out of school to work.
Robert got to finish sixth grade. Then one day his father asked his eldest son if he wanted to continue school or help the family.
"I said, 'I will help you, Daddy,'" Robert recalled. He began work as a grave digger, earning $4 a grave. In 1940, he joined the Civilian Conservation Corps and was stationed in Arizona.
He was drafted into the Army and served with the 506th Engineer Company. The company was stationed in New Guinea and Luzon, Philippines. He said that while the soldiers, mostly from South and North Carolina, didn't harbor prejudice against Mexican Americans, there was a deep-seated hostility toward black soldiers. In Lahti, Luzon, there was a black unit stationed close to his. A few of the men in his unit were said to have gone "hunting colored people ... shoot[ing] them like snipers," Robert recalled. The culprits were transferred out of the area before military officials came to investigate.
When Robert returned home, he suffered bouts of malaria for 10 years and used quinine to stabilize his health. Discrimination abounded back home, but he said, "It's in the way they grow up; it's what you have been taught by your parents."
Robert worked for the Bay City Gas and Water Department for 29 years, installing and reading meters. He and his first wife, Paula Delgado, had two sons, Robert Jr. and Elí¬as, before divorcing. He and his second wife, Tomasilla Villareal, had one son: Guadalupe.
Both Isaac and Elí¬¬as were German prisoners of war. The youngest Zepeda, Paul, recalled the day his parents received a telegram that told them Elí¬¬as was missing in action.
"Two weeks later, they received another telegram notifying them that Isaac was also missing in action," Paul said. "My mother cried and cried and my father would try to console her ... We have always been a family grounded in faith and that, I believe, is the only thing that pulled them through those hard, trying days."
Elí¬as was with the 2nd Division in Normandy. He and three other men found themselves hiding in a hole from the Germans when they realized they needed to surrender. The lieutenant balked at the idea, but the sergeant stood up to his superior: "I can't let them kill my men without them having any defense," he said. Unfortunately, they had nothing to announce their surrender.
"All our clothes were green, we didn't have anything white," Elí¬¬as said. The sergeant nonetheless remembered the first aid kit, wrapped the white strips of gauze around his hand and lifted his hand out of the hole to announce their surrender.
"The Germans took our gloves and our overcoats because the snow was above our knees and they didn't have any," Elí¬as said. "And we continued forward."
At the POW camp, the Zepeda son was surprised to learn that on the third day of not eating, he wasn't hungry anymore. Once, there were green worms floating in their soup.
After the war, Elí¬as was set free. When he finally reached the American forces, Elí¬as had his first shower in six months.
"We had fleas in our clothes and everything," he said. "We took a bath and used soap and then got clean clothes."
Elí¬as and Isaac met up in Camp Lucky Strike in France and returned home one day apart.
After his return, Elí¬as worked as a laborer in the Bay City area. He and his first wife, Lupe DeLeon, adopted two children before getting divorced. He married Minerva Medina in 1975.
Isaac was first sent to Camp Butner in North Carolina in 1942 for basic training, and trained without rifles. "We were very proud when we got real rifles and steel helmets. Now we were real soldiers."
He took part in the Normandy Invasion and fought in the Battle of the Bulge. While he was on patrol behind enemy lines, Isaac was taken prisoner. "I felt like I was in a dream. I didn't have fear or pain or anything," he said. A German officer pointed a gun directly at Isaac's head and he stood up taller, "so he wouldn't miss." Later, another soldier said it was Isaac's bravery that had saved him. "If that officer had killed you in front of his men, he would have lost respect of his men," he was told.
He was sent to interrogation camps and asked questions that an infantry soldier would never be privy to. From then on, he acted like "just a simple soldier," one time even responding in Spanish: "Señor, no entiendo ni una solo palabra" (Sir, I don't understand a single word).
The German interrogator almost fell off his chair. "How do you know how to speak Spanish?" he asked in well-spoken Spanish. "My father is Mexican," Isaac told him. "You mean to tell me that Mexico has Mexican troops here in Normandy?" the German questioned.
"And then I didn't say anything," Isaac said. "They said if you are taken prisoner, don't lie, instead, don't say anything."
As a prisoner, Isaac saw German refugees from bombings arrive in the city. Half of them died of exposure to the bitter winter on the trains upon arriving and the prisoners would remove the bodies from the railroad cars.
For the living, there was no place to go. "There were ladies with babies standing all night. (The town) was just full of people," he said.
Eventually, U.S. and British planes bombed the area and the prisoners were freed and came upon Russian soldiers, who thought the presence of American troops meant the Allies had met from opposite fronts. "They even danced with us and jumped and danced like children. They showed us their tanks and trucks ... All we wanted was food," Isaac recalled. The newly-freed Americans made their way through Germany, and eventually found the U.S. lines. Isaac was flown to France, where he found his brother.
Isaac returned to Bay City after the war and found work as a laborer for a building contractor, then in the shipping yards in Galveston, a hardware store and, finally, a rice-drying company. He married Dolores Arias in 1948 and with her had four children: Mary, Gloria, Yolanda and Isaac Jr.
Daniel was stationed in Bermuda during World War II.
Robert, Elí¬as and Isaac Zepeda were interviewed on March 17, 2000, by Paul R. Zepeda.