By Yasemin Florey
Even though Tony Aguilera's childhood in an East Los Angeles barrio was once marked by poverty, he remembers it fondly.
"We were a very happy family," he said of his Mexico-born parents and 13 siblings. "We played marbles and tops and flew kites. We sent to the fields and caught rabbits."
Aguilera would leave his home and fond memories behind when, on March 4, 1942, he was drafted into the service as a member of a Texas infantry unit in Europe. Eventually, he’d become a prisoner of war in a German camp for 16 months.
But during a recent interview at an East Los Angeles veterans' center, Aguilera opted to remember happier days of his youth before recounting tales of war:
As he entered his teenage years, girls, beer and popular tunes replaced marbles, tops and kites as his primary focus. In those days, he and other young people from the barrio would catch a streetcar for seven cents to Main Street, where they'd take in a show for a nickel and a nightcap of root beer at the local hangout.
"We'd play records at church, drink beer in the orchards and go to the show," reminisced Aguilera with a smile.
Life wasn't completely carefree for him, however. He took a job to support his family, and in doing that, it became necessary to acquire a certain street savvy. When food was scarce, he’d help scavenge for discarded morsels.
"My dad worked for 25 cents an hour on a farm," Aguilera said. "We found work wherever we could. The farms would throw away seconds, so we would bring them home. We survived. Someone was always hustling for something. We just wanted to make it."
It wasn't long before thoughts of just wanting to "make it" gave way to prayers of survival. Soon, Aguilera was resigned to the possibility of having to make the ultimate sacrifice for his country.
"I thought we were going to go over there and get killed, [but] I went, it was my duty. I had it in my mind I was never going to get back."
With tears welling in his eyes, Aguilera then remembers the dark days leading to his capture. With a thick layer of fog surrounding them, he and his squad, the 143rd Infantry Division 36th Infantry, entered Salerno, Italy. The squad, a Texas infantry division of mostly Latinos, was charged with getting as close to the beach as possible, dig in and hold their position.
The mission would prove treacherous and deadly.
"Only 20 some were left at the end," Aguilera recalled.
The ferocity of the battle came as something of a surprise, as the fog had camouflaged the German enemy troops. It was only after the fog dissipated that the sheer numbers of the enemy became evident.
"When we got there, there was no resistance," said Aguilera, leaning forward as he recounted the tale. "We stopped and got all our ammo out. When the fog lifted, we were surrounded. Everyone was shooting at us. You stood up and they knocked you down."
During the crossfire, Aguilera caught shrapnel in his left leg. He spent several hours in the trenches, resigned to his eventual capture by the Germans.
"I rolled over and found a nice gutter and stayed there until the Germans picked me up. They told me to get up, but I couldn't. I showed them my leg," he said. "The Germans took my pistol, grenades, ammunition and everything. They put me in a tank and took me to a hospital."
Aguilera spent three months recuperating before the Germans transferred him to Stalag 2B, a prisoner-of-war camp in Hanover, Germany. He spent 16 months as a POW before American and Russian troops liberated the camp in 1945, bringing an end to his 2 1/2-year involvement in the war.
Although he has no regrets about his wartime experience, Aguilera said he wouldn’t wish the experience on anyone: "I did my share . . . that's something you never forget; you don't want nobody else to go through."
After the war, Aguilera returned to East Los Angeles, where he lives today with his wife, Molly, of 60 years. But settling back into a regular life wasn't always easy. "I used to have nightmares," said Aguilera, hanging his head low. "My wife said I'd get up in the night and yell."
With time, his post-war trauma passed. But recognition for his service was harder to come by than his recovery, ironically, from members of his own ethnic group.
"The Mexicans who worked with me, they never believed me," said Aguilera, referring to his co-workers at Kal Kan Foods, where he was employed for 40 years after the war. "No one believes you. They say, 'Oh, that dumb Mexican has never been out of this country,"' he said. "Unless he's also a veteran, then he understands."
Aguilera was no stranger to ethnic slurs, even as a child. "They'd call you greaseball and stuff," he said, recalling his days in a segregated school. "You were just a dumb Mexican. I got used to it. What are you going to do, kill everyone who calls you a dumb Mexican? No, you just let it go."
Conversely, Aguilera doesn’t recall any bias while in the service. It was only before and after the war, in his hometown, where he endured the insults.
As he relives his wartime experience, Aguilera feels content in his postwar life in Los Angeles, where he’s surrounded by grandchildren. Along with fulfillment, he has earned a military pension. He joked about the amount he gets today versus the soldiers' pay so long ago.
"I got $10 per month. Now it's $2,000 a month! I wish I had got it when I was young," he said. "We could have gone on vacation!"
Mr. Aguilera was interviewed in Los Angeles, California, on March 23, 2002, by Milton Carrero Galarza.