By Jennifer Nalewicki
Luis Angel Ramirez has many memories of World War II.
But his strongest recollection is the camaraderie soldiers shared in his platoon, which helped Ramirez stay grounded while battling German soldiers on the front lines.
Ramirez considered the men in his platoon, the 102nd Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron, his family; especially since they were together from the time they began military training at Fort Dix in New Jersey and Fort Jackson in South Carolina in 1941 until the war's end in 1945.
"Those guys are like my brothers; they worry about me and I worry about them," he said. "We care for [each other]. It's like a big family."
While traveling to the next battlefield, the men would often pass their time inside tanks by telling each other jokes and stories to alleviate the stressful surroundings of the war, Ramirez recalls. They kept a keen eye, however, for fear of being ambushed.
"We were always on guard. [There were] mines all over the place, so we were very careful. We didn't want to die," he said. "It was hard, but at the same time, we were not alone -- we were a bunch of guys looking after each other."
Born a United States’ citizen in Lajas, Puerto Rico, on Sept. 17, 1914, to a farmer father and schoolteacher mother, Ramirez was one of 11 children. In his early 30s, Ramirez suffered malaria and traveled to New York City, where he could receive better health care. Once he recovered, he decided to stay in New York.
After spending a year working on the factory floor of an eyeglass manufacturer and brushing up on his English skills by going to the movies and reading the newspaper, Ramirez was drafted by the Army in April of 1941 and stationed in Fort Jackson with the 102d Cavalry Regiment.
The regiment left the U.S., spent 12 days on ship and arrived in England on Oct. 6, 1942.
"I was seasick most of the time," Ramirez recalled. "We were, of course, nervous but we stayed together."
The regiment was reorganized in England in January of 1944, his unit being renamed the 102nd Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron (Mechanized). They landed at Normandy on D-Day and advanced into France during the Battle of Saint-Malo, where they were met by enemy tanks, bombs and soldiers. This was their first whiff of combat, not to mention death and suffering, as a German concentration camp was nearby.
"[The enemy] was bombarding us when we first got there," he said.
Once the fighting ceased, all that was left was a field strewn with the bodies of horses, cattle and Germans. Ramirez says the smell of death permeated the air, but, fortunately for Ramirez and his platoon, no one was injured.
"My best memory was that we all looked out for each other. Nothing touched [us], thank God. [We] were in the middle of it, but nothing happened," he said. "Maybe it was because we were good fighters, I don't know."
Ramirez, who participated in the Battle of the Bulge as well as the Battle of Saint-Malo, couldn’t avoid the anguish of war, however. He recalls walking through one of Hitler's concentration camps and seeing the lifeless bodies of those once held captive.
"We saw people walking like skeletons, it made you sick," he said. "We didn't see much, we were just passing through, but the smell was awful. Just like a factory of cheese, you could smell it everywhere."
By the time Ramirez arrived in Czechoslovakia in 1945, Germany had surrendered. The war was over, but even today, the memories are embedded in his mind.
He chooses to remember the good times he had overseas, however, and the lifelong friends he made, as opposed to dwelling on the difficulties he faced on a daily basis.
"I saw people dead on a beach in Normandy. I couldn't believe it. That affects you a lot," he said. "But then you keep going. You forget and you get used to everything that happens to you in life. Sometimes I remember things so vividly; sometimes I get tears in my eyes ... I [try to] go easy in life, that is the way I live.''
After spending 11 months in combat against the Germans, Ramirez says he has no feelings of animosity toward them.
"My mom taught us to not hate anybody. I don't hate the Japanese and the Germans. I know what they did was terrible, but I don't have to hate them," he said. "If they come to me with a gun, I am going to shoot them first, but that doesn't mean I hate them. I am just defending myself."
Ramirez uses his experiences as a WWII veteran as a means to interest others in enlisting in the military, so they too can serve their country. He says he has even mentioned this opportunity to his granddaughter on several occasions, but to no avail.
Ramirez continued his career in the military after the war ended, getting discharged in 1963. He’d married Abigail Garcia in 1954, and the couple eventually had a son, Robert Bruce.
In 2002, at nearly 90 years of age, Ramirez's feelings of patriotism and service still remain strong.
"If [the military] would call me, I think I would go," Ramirez said. "I am 90 and the way I feel is if they need me for anything, I would go. I still have patriotism in me. I am very proud of serving my country."
Mr. Ramirez was interviewed in Miami, Florida, on September 14, 2002, by Adrian Bashick.