By Gabrielle Muñoz
When Germany invaded Poland on Sept. 1, 1939, Rose Sandoval was nearly 5,500 miles away in Torres, Colo., where she grew up on her family’s cattle ranch. But like countless others, Sandoval experienced the war in the confines of her own home when her oldest brother, Leo Vallejos, was deployed overseas as a member of the Army. Her brother’s military service brought the war to Torres, located in the mountains of southern Colorado 30 miles northwest of Trinidad.
“It was scary,” Sandoval said. “My mother used to scare us all. She was always very worried about Leo.”
Born Rose Piedad Vallejos on Dec. 23, 1924, Sandoval was one of six children raised on the ranch. She began attending Torres Elementary School in 1930, during the Great Depression. Though her parents were self-employed, they still felt the effects of the economic downturn.
“The government came and asked all the ranchers to – instead of just cattle – to plant food,” Sandoval said. “We had big fields of peas, lettuce, a lot of vegetables. Green beans, cauliflower, cabbage, a lot of lettuce, but they used to sell them. A lot of peas; we used to hire people to pick the peas because we had fields of them.”
Sandoval entered Primero High School in 1938. Just two years later, Leo entered the Army, leaving the family’s next-oldest son, Gilbert Vallejos, to stay and work on the ranch.
“He didn’t want Gilbert to go,” Sandoval said. “Because, you know, they would defer one son to stay on the farm to help, and one would go. He chose to go to the Army.”
Leo was first stationed in California in 1942. From there, he went to training, followed by a stay at Fort Polk in Louisiana. He made his way to England, Belgium and Germany, eventually fighting in the Battle of Ardennes – more commonly known as the Battle of the Bulge – in December of 1944 and January of 1945.
“I remember every night while he was overseas, my mother used to – being Catholic at the time – we used to get together every night and pray the rosary,” Sandoval said.
Back in Torres, Sandoval’s family put in extra work on the ranch, growing food for the war effort. With so many people gone or unavailable due to the war, the family had to rely less on hired hands and more on their own labor. Leo stayed in touch while separated from his loved ones, frequently sending letters and updates.
“He wrote practically every week,” Sandoval said. “Letters said what he was doing, people he met. And he used to send pictures.”
After his time on the battlefield, Leo worked taking care of supplies for the soldiers. The job took him out of direct combat, but not before he got wounded; a shot in the face during the Battle of the Bulge left a scar near his mouth.
Much to the relief of his family, Leo returned home in 1945. He brought with him stories, both good – places he’d been and people he’d met – and bad – friends and cousins among the war’s 318,274 Army casualties.
Upon his return, Leo moved to Denver, obtained a business degree and got married in 1946. Sandoval’s parents retired to Trinidad, leaving the ranch in Gilbert’s care. When Sandoval and her younger sister, Ida Vallejos, both finished high school, they moved to Denver as well, and stayed with Leo and his wife, Lucy Garcia Sandoval. Sandoval worked on garden hoses at Gates Rubber Company, where she met her future husband, Ernest, in the late ‘40s. The two were married in 1948.
Ernest had also been involved in World War II, working as a radio operator in the Army Air Corps. His work with Morse code allowed him to stay out of combat.
“He liked it,” Sandoval said. “He didn’t get to go fight. He stayed in the States.”
After Ernest was discharged from the Air Corps in 1947, he returned to Denver and his first wife and two children, Ernie and Irma. He and Sandoval would eventually have two kids of their own, Kathy and Gary.
Sandoval worked with Leo, who had bought Duban’s, a clothing store, after Ernest died of an aneurysm in 1972.
“I was very close to [Leo],” Sandoval said. “He helped me an awful lot.”
The clothing store, located in a primarily Latino neighborhood, was popular among visitors from Mexico. Although Sandoval and her brother were friendly with the businesses nearby, such as the Hacienda, she recalls wartime discrimination toward Latinos.
“One thing, you know, [Latinos] were discriminated [against] at a lot of the restaurants,” Sandoval said. “I don’t know how that happened, but just like the black people, they ran them out of restaurants. Then, after the war, everything went back to normal.”
Sandoval notes she rarely experienced any discrimination personally, even with the diverse workforce at Gates.
“It seems to me like I was accepted at all places,” she said. “I think [Latinos] are still having trouble, but there’s a lot of them that have businesses now.”
Now 83, Sandoval still resides in Denver. Reflecting on her experiences, she sums her feelings up simply:
“I’m glad to be alive,” she said.
Mrs. Sandoval was interviewed in Denver, Colorado, on March 11, 2008, by Julio Trujillo.