By Christine Pev
On Dec. 7, 1941, 20-year-old Pablo Gonzales heard on the radio in his hometown of Sabinal, Texas, that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor, and he immediately wanted to enlist in the military to help defend his country.
His mother, Julia Bocanegra Gonzales, wasn’t pleased. The second of 10 children and the oldest son, he was a significant contributor to the family’s income. Ever since Gonzales and his father, Rafael Gonzales, had worked together on a job mending fences and cutting cedar, they’d labored as a team.
Julia told Gonzales to wait until he got drafted, which is exactly what happened the following December. By then, the family had moved to Indian Town, Mich., in search of better employment opportunities, so Gonzales promptly headed back to Texas – this time to Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio.
"When I arrived at the camp, I was disoriented," Gonzales said. "But I had to go for it."
He was sent to Boston; then trained in England, where he broke his ankle and spent three months recovering in an English hospital. He wound up in Normandy, France, next, fighting the Germans with the No. 823 Tank Destroyer Battalion. The fight at Normandy was rough, and his experience with the battalion wasn’t the same as during training, Gonzales says.
"In maneuvers, people do not get shot, but with the battalion, you hear guns going off," he said. "The main thing on my mind was my faith in God. I thought if these college kids and gueros were ready to sacrifice their life for their country, then I was ready, too."
Despite the brutality of battle, Gonzales continued fighting with his unit and moved into Holland, where he was wounded and later received the Purple Heart. His injury didn’t slow him down, however, as he persisted fighting with his unit all the way to Germany.
He vividly recalls the Battle of the Bulge.
The fight began Dec. 16, 1944, when eight German armored divisions and 13 infantry divisions opened up with artillery and rockets on the Allied positions. Gonzales' unit fought the German Army in Stavelot, Belgium, defending a bridge against the German Panzers and destroying four German tanks. For his courage and gallantry in action, a general awarded him the Silver Star the next day.
"I was very proud to be a Mexican awarded,” he said. “It made me feel good."
Gonzales came miraculously close to death at one point of the Battle of the Bulge, when a blast from a German "Tiger Tank" hit his tank from the back; he got pelted in the head with shrapnel.
"I had a toilet paper roll strapped underneath my helmet, so when I was hit, it went through the helmet and the roll and it barely touched my head. It was a lucky break," he said. "If I did not have those papers, I would have died. I kept the helmet, because it was my lucky helmet."
His sergeant, Clyde Gentry, wasn’t as lucky, however.
“He died instantly, and blood came out of his fingertips, and he went down," Gonzales said. "My sergeant was like a father to me. He was an older man, and we all looked up to him. I felt very bad when he was killed."
The tank caught fire and the crew bailed out to pile snow on it to diminish the blaze. In the snow, they laid Gentry, who was covered by a fresh coat by the time they left.
A month later, on Jan. 28, the battle ended, and Gonzales was promoted to Sergeant and became a tank commander. As a commander, he looked out for his crew and made decisions on shooting positions.
"It was an honor as a Mexican to become a tank commander full of gringos. It made me feel prouder," he said.
With the Purple Heart, Silver Star, Five Campaign Stars – for his service in the European Theater operations – and the Good Conduct Medal under his belt, Sergeant Gonzales was one of the country’s most decorated Latino veterans by the time the Army discharged him on Oct. 31, 1945.
Back in Texas, he soon began courting Nicolasa Contreras in the Sabinal area. They married April 28, 1946; then moved to Saginaw, Mich., in search of better employment opportunities. At the time of Gonzales’ interview, they’d been together for 56 years and raised seven children.
Gonzales retired from General Motors in 1975. Among other activities, he’s a member of the American Legion Post 500, where he has served as Post Commander eight times.
Mr. Gonzalez was interviewed by Jeffrey K. Watanabe at the Mexican American Cultural Center in Saginaw, Michigan, on October 19, 2002.