By Caprice Padilla
Turned away on his first attempt to join the Army because of a bad eye, Marshall Vasquez’s determination and will were fierce. Sitting next to his serviceman photo and an array of framed medals, Vasquez, who by showing courage and leadership overseas, proved he was as good as, if not better, than soldiers without a disability, told us his story.
Born Feb. 5, 1921, and raised in the Los Angeles area, he says he was accidentally poked in the right eye at age 10 by his sister, resulting in blindness on that side. Because he’s visually impaired, it took him two years to get accepted by the Army, who took him as a limited serviceman in 1941.
Vasquez wasn’t allowed to physically fight in the war on account of his eye. Instead, he drove trucks, gathered equipment and performed other noncombatant duties until his services were no longer needed and he was discharged.
He didn’t accept this dismissal, however, and confronted the lieutenants.
“I wanted to go to combat, to war … so I told them that I could learn to fight because I could use my left eye instead of my right eye and I could fire; I could kill,” he said.
Vasquez recalls being inspired to fight by Franklin D. Roosevelt.
“I listened to the president at that time – the good president, not this one now – and the way he talked … it made you feel good that you want to be a soldier.”
The Army tested Vasquez on his shooting skills. He earned high marks and was sent to Virginia to train, arriving halfway through the session. Because he needed to be there for a complete session, he was unable to go overseas and had to start training from the beginning with new soldiers.
During this training, 22-year-old Vasquez met 18-year-old J.C. Thompson, who became his closest friend. Both men were shot during the Battle of the Bulge, the most deadly fight during World War II. The two still share a tight bond.
Thompson was one of the men trained during Vasquez’s second session. Vasquez says he watched Thompson and asked the company commander if he was going to be shipped out with him. The commander told him he was, and that Vasquez needed to train him. Vasquez says he worried because the younger men, including Thompson, acted like children and seemed to just be playing games.
He and Thompson eventually became inseparable. Among other shared experiences, they were together when Vasquez was confronted with blatant racism for the first time.
As Vasquez recalls, they were on a full bus from New York back to their training camp when a black woman and her two young children boarded and Vasquez and Thompson gave up their seats. The bus driver told Vasquez and Thompson, “No black people are gonna sit down when a white is standing,” at which point the two sat down on the floor and told him to drive.
When they reached camp, Vasquez reported the incident to the commander.
“You know what? You’re not in California, so you have to do what they say,” Vasquez recalled the commander telling him. He added during his interview that he was raised unaware of racism, as he attended a private school where about 95 percent of the students were Jewish and the students mingled well.
On Oct. 14, 1944, Vasquez’s unit departed New York aboard the Queen Elizabeth. The ship zigzagged across the Atlantic Ocean to avoid patrolling German U-boats. It took 14 days to arrive in England.
Vazquez and the rest of the 310th Infantry Regiment crossed the English Channel to Le Havre, France. He says the men didn’t worry about anyone dying because they’d practiced and were trained to fight.
Vasquez says he and his buddies were always together on the front lines. It was an interracial group, with Vasquez being the only Mexican in his company. Among his friends were a German, a Chinese and an Italian man. Although Vasquez recalls meting many Mexican Americans from Arizona while in the service, he says there were no black men.
According to his records, the military labeled him white. Classifying Latinos as either black or white was the norm. Less common were documents that gave options like “Other,” “Mexican” and “M.A.” As a result, it’s difficult to know the exact number of Latinos who served in the war. Vasquez says some of his hometown friends were sent back to Mexico by their parents to avoid getting drafted.
Upon arriving in France, Vasquez saw all of the buildings were damaged and smashed from artillery. People were buried under the debris, but he says his unit was unable to do anything about it. He and his fellow soldiers advanced, moving through France to Belgium as they’d been trained to do.
In Belgium, the men set up a camp in the fields and practiced fighting as they advanced to the front lines. One morning, the men saw an unmarked decoy plane fly above them, which thoroughly rattled their nerves.
“All of a sudden the fire goes out – boom – and we knew there were no drivers inside that plane … and it started going fast and everybody started running,” he recalled. “I didn’t run. I stayed and I just watched ’til it come down – boom!”
The soldiers had never seen a small plane like the decoy back home, so they didn’t know what it was.
The unit didn’t see combat until Germany, where the men were told to get off their bus, leave their belongings and walk. After arriving there in the morning, they were ordered into a formation when artillery hit. Vasquez, who was a first-class soldier, says he ordered the men to move, but a lieutenant, who was taking cover under a tank, commanded them to stay put. Vasquez soon found himself comforting a friend, Anthony Amaro, who was first to get shot.
This signaled the beginning of the war for Vasquez.
His company continued walking, but had to veer to the side because too many men from other companies were in front of them. While hiking on a hill, Vasquez recalls one of his comrades telling him not to get too close to him; Vasquez had artillery strapped to him, and if he’d gotten hit, he likely would have blown up. So Vasquez says he retreated and removed the artillery while the men advanced.
As he moved to get up from removing the artillery, however, a wave of machine gun fire passed in front of him and he pulled back. He attempted getting up a second time, and again dodged gunfire. Bullets flew on Vasquez’s third attempt as well; he leapt over them and hit the side of the hill, where he remained.
He glanced over to search for his buddies; one had been shot.
“He called me, ‘Chief! Chief! Help me!’ I said, ‘I can’t. If I get you, I’ll get shot.’” (Chief was Vasquez’s nickname because some people mistook him for being Native American.)
Many men, including the first aid crew, had been shot. Vasquez recalls telling them to wait, and that he’d return for them as soon as it grew dark. When he came back, however, everyone was dead.
After the deaths, Thompson was named Scout 1 and Vasquez Scout 2. They were to follow the first team of soldiers, who were all killed except for one man.
Thompson and Vasquez were then called into action.
“There was a street going down the hill, and there were shots from Germans that were going through and they wanted to see if I’d get shot. So they asked me to go there, and I asked the captain commander,
‘Why? Look at all these guys here. How come you make me run?
‘[B]ut you’re 2nd Scout,’” Vasquez recalled his superior replying.
“‘Yeah, but what am I, a guinea pig?’” responded Vasquez, before obeying orders and darting across without getting shot.
Once also across, the commander warned the men to be watchful of foot mines in the blanket of snow, in which Vasquez’s men dug foxholes for shelter from the German soldiers at their heels. Two men were in each hole, where they waited without food for three days; for water, they drank melted snow.
The Germans were so close the Americans could see them from the holes.
“They’d be without no shirts, washing themselves, taking a bath in the cold, Vasquez recalled.
The only means for maintaining warmth was for each pair of soldiers to wrap their arms around each other while rocking or to huddle together while wrapping their arms around themselves and rocking.
On the third day, Vasquez told his lieutenant he was sending his men into one of the many empty houses. His lieutenant disapproved, but Vasquez was insistent.
The soldiers’ boots were frozen, and many had to be cut out of them. Vasquez recalls searching for materials to warm the men’s feet; he wrapped them with coats.
The lieutenant found the men in the house and reprimanded Vasquez for disobeying his orders. At which point, Vasquez recalls cocking his rifle and saying, “Look at the way these guys are. You want them to stay over there? You better get out of here.”
His comrades all put their rifles up, and the lieutenant left without reporting them.
One of the men was sent to find help, but didn’t return. Neither did a second soldier. A third finally returned with a rescue team.
The unit suffered from severe frostbite, which occurs when skin and tissue becomes frozen. Body fluids freeze and crystallize, damaging blood vessels and causing a lack of oxygen and blood clots to the area. Also known as trench foot, the condition was caused by the soldiers remaining in the freezing trenches without being able to remove their wet socks and boots.
One of the soldiers had both feet amputated because of the frostbite. Vasquez spent six months recovering in an English hospital. His feet were black, and he had to use his knees to get to the bathroom. He says he treated himself by applying alcohol to his calves and feet. Many of the men moaned and cried from the pain, he recalls, so doctors injected pain relief medication into their backs.
When Vasquez was well, he was sent back to France as a limited serviceman. He was no longer allowed to fight. Instead, he helped to replace drivers and mechanics being put in the infantry.
Vasquez says his new company commander didn’t like any of the replacements because he’d wanted to remain with his men, so he made life difficult for them, largely by forcing everyone to work in the kitchen and clean the yard on weekends instead of allowing them to go to town.
Vasquez says he became a truck driver and befriended military policemen, who instructed him to escort a colonel, whom Vasquez asked if he could speak to in private. Vasquez reported the mistreatment by the commander to the colonel, who took care of the matter by moving the commander from the unit.
“I took over as captain because I was the oldest guy. It was heaven after that,” said Vasquez, who was 25 years old.
During the final part of his term, he guarded German civilian prisoners of war in France. He says he treated them well, and that they did favors for him in return.
“They used to clean my section where my bed was at. They used to clean it real good and everything, and I left my locker a little bit open and I said, ‘Look, if there’s anything you want in there – candies or cigarettes – you can have it.’ My bed was clean, and next door they never cleaned it or nothing. If my clothes were dirty, they’d put clean ones [out] … I got around with them good,” Vasquez said.
But one day, when he returned to his room to go to sleep, his bed was gone. That’s how he recalls learning he was being sent back to the U.S. Upon hearing of his Feb. 28, 1946, discharge, he says he said goodbye to his friends and gave his money to the local poor people.
Private First Class Vasquez returned to New York in March and was formally discharged at Fort MacArthur in California. Reuniting with family was at the top of his agenda.
“When I got discharged, I came home that day and I kept saying to myself, ‘How am I going to tell my father that I’m here?’ No telephones, so I finally made it to the house and I knocked on the door and my father was there,” Vasquez recalled.
“‘Come in, son,’” said his father, Marcelino.
“I said, ‘How did you know it was me?’
‘I saw you walking, and when I saw the way you walked, I knew it was you,’” Vasquez recalled his father replying.
Vasquez then went to find his brother, Victor. He knocked on the door of victor’s house and a woman answered and brought him inside. She was the sister of Victor’s wife, and married Vasquez that December. Rosie Gonzales was 23 and Vasquez was 25. Eight years later, the two had their first of four children.
Mr. Vasquez was interviewed in San Jose, California, on June 15, 2007, by Maggie Rivas Rodriguez.