By Robert Inks
When Raul Cantú Villarreal came home to Brownsville, Texas, in 1949 after serving in World War II, he had adjustments to make.
For one thing, Villarreal lost his right leg after stepping on a land mine.
"I thanked God I made it back," he said. "Not in one piece, but I'm still ticking."
Born Nov. 16, 1919, Villarreal, had left South Texas only one other time. Before fighting in the war from 1936 to 1939, he lived in the Pacific Northwest as a part of a Civilian Conservation Corps labor crew.
His childhood was marked by the hard work and poverty of the Great Depression. He labored in the fields, along with his mother, Maria Cantú Villarreal, brother and sister. Villarreal recalls being paid 75 cents a day to pick tomatoes, cotton and string beans "from sunup to sundown" in Brownsville.
Young Villarreal attended school only through fourth grade; he says work consumed so much of his time that he found little opportunity even to play with friends.
When he was 16, he joined the CCC and took his first journey away from Brownsville. He worked at Camp Rand in Oregon for $30 a month. Of his pay, $25 got sent home to his mother.
"First they had us building roads, but then we were told to put out these forest fires," he said. "Back then, we didn't have big hoses or planes to drop barrels of water. Everything we did, we had to do by hand."
Villarreal recalls working around the clock for weeks at a time.
"Every once in a while, a guy would come by with a baggie with three sandwiches in it," he said. "One would be peanut butter and jelly, the others maybe salami. He'd hand 'em to us and say, 'Keep on going, man.'"
Upon being discharged from the CCC in 1939, Villarreal returned to Brownsville and, in November of that year, married Delfina Martinez. Their first child, Raul Luis Villarreal, was born the following year. Villarreal settled down to a quieter life, driving dump trucks and city buses.
Then, in November of 1944, Villarreal was drafted into the Army. He says the 17 weeks he spent in basic training were difficult, but he was saved from some of the most unpleasant duties because he could speak both English and Spanish.
"I was the only guy in basic who could speak a little English and Spanish, and there were a lot of guys there who didn't know any English at all," Villarreal said. "So they'd give orders to break down a rifle or do this or that, and I had to explain it to the other guys in Spanish."
For that talent, Villarreal was given the unofficial rank of "Acting Sergeant." He says it didn't mean much, except for one fortunate distinction.
"I was saved from having to do KP duty," he said. "Most of the guys had to do dirty work, like the dishes or clean the floor, when their name got called, besides all the other training they were going through. I didn't have to do that."
When basic training ended, Villarreal was sent to Europe, assigned to Company C of the 407th Infantry Regiment, 102nd Infantry Division. From Sept. 22, 1944, they fought in France, Belgium, Holland and Germany on the front lines, slowly advancing toward Berlin.
Villarreal didn’t make it there, however. On Feb. 26, 1945, in Köln, Germany, he stepped on a land mine, losing his right leg and getting his left one fractured in two places.
He doesn't remember much of Europe after that.
From there, he was moved to hospitals in New York City; Modesto, Calif.; Brigham City, Utah; Temple, Texas; and Battle Creek, Mich.
"In Temple, they wanted to give me a weekend of leave," Villarreal recalled. "I told them I wanted a week to go see my wife, child and mother. They said, 'No, we can't do that.' I said, 'Well, I'm gonna take off anyway.'''
"They listed me as AWOL for six days," he said.
From there, Villarreal went to Battle Creek, Mich., where he spent the rest of his term of service until being discharged Feb. 17, 1949. He earned the Purple Heart, a Bronze Star, Good Conduct Medal, American Campaign Medal, European Campaign Medal with three bronze campaign stars, WWII Victory Medal and Combat Infantryman's Badge.
Villarreal then returned to Brownsville for the final time. The fact that he had only one leg didn't slow him down much.
"I'd get in my jalopy and go around -- hunting, fishing, things like that," he said.
He and his brother also converted a Model A car by designing medial rods to fit the clutch, brake and gas so he could use hand controls instead of his leg.
He and his wife had four children -- Aida, Leo, Joe and Noe -- as well as 11 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.
Villarreal says the most important thing about his military service is to remember it happened.
"The Army wants you to forget everything they teach you in there, because they teach you how to be mean," he said. "When you get through with all that, you have to learn how to behave and be good again. ... But some of that stuff will always be with you."
Mr. Villarreal was interviewed in Brownsville, Texas, on October 20, 2003, by Xochitl Salazar and Violeta Dominguez.