By Gina Ross
World War II gave Xavier Pelaez many gruesome experiences -- from witnessing the horror of a concentration camp to the pain of being wounded in battle.
Pelaez was born in Los Angeles in 1925, his parents having moved from Nogales, Mexico, before he was born. His mother, Graciela Preciado, was a homemaker and his namesake father did various jobs wherever he could find work.
Pelaez graduated from Fremont High School in 1943, but knew his immediate future was with the service.
"I joke that I received my diploma and my greetings [from the Army] on the same day," he said.
At 18, he headed for boot camp near Killeen, Texas, at Camp Hood. While he enjoyed many of the new experiences camp brought, there was one he could have done without.
"I had never experienced prejudice before I got there, and I did for the first time," Pelaez said.
He tells the story of a young man from Alabama who overheard him speaking Spanish to another solider and reported him for it. He was punished, receiving kitchen patrol duty for 48 hours.
"I don't think I realized until then that I was different," Pelaez said. "But I did realize very quickly to keep my mouth shut."
He remembers meeting only a few Latinos in training, and they were almost all separated once they received their overseas assignments. For that reason, he says he never spoke Spanish again while in the military.
Assigned to the 276th Infantry Regiment, 70th Infantry Division, his first taste of World War II was in France during the winter of 1944. He felt enemy fire for the first time when he was shot at from behind by an elderly civilian man.
He was part of a group of soldiers called "first scouts" -- the first men to scout an area for enemies. He remembers crossing a minefield and the “first scouts” losing two men.
"I never thought I would be killed, though," Pelaez said.
He acknowledges his fear, but thoughts of family kept him going, he says.
"There were times when some would want to surrender, but that was always out of the question for me," Pelaez said. "I just thought of the shame it would cause my family."
And so he continued to do what he was trained to do, even though it meant putting himself in harm's way.
One dark night, harm eventually found him when he was scouting in France. He didn't see the enemy until they fired at him.
He hit the muddy ground in an instant and crept and crawled as low as he could, petrified.
"I just knew I had to stay low," Pelaez said. "There was a guy next to me that got his elbow shot away just because he raised his arm."
He was preparing to throw a grenade when he saw an enemy soldier in front of him and the other man's grenade got him first.
"It didn't hurt at first. My only thoughts were, 'Damn, they got me.' It wasn't until it got quiet and cold that I realized I had a problem," said Pelaez, who’d been hit in the right thigh, and who still has eight pieces of shrapnel in his hip.
Four enemy soldiers were captured in a machine gun nest there; two others had been killed in the crossfire.
Pelaez was taken to a hospital in France, where doctors operated on his leg. He’d spend three months in the hospital recovering.
The one thing he remembers most about the hospital is that German soldiers were being treated there as well, many of whom were recovering across the aisle from him.
"It was just strange to me, and I actually couldn't sleep well until they separated us," Pelaez said.
After his stay, he hadn't completely healed, but the Army felt he was healthy enough to return to battle.
He joined the 3rd Infantry Division in Dachau, Germany. The Germans had recently retreated from the area and had left behind a concentration camp.
"I could smell the burnt flesh, and I saw the furnaces and the ashes and little bits of bone. It was unbelievable," Pelaez said. "I couldn't believe what I was told, that people were capable of such things."
The war ended while he was in Dachau and he was ready to go home. The Army had other plans, however, and sent him to Frankfurt to be part of an occupying force.
"There was really no military order, so we socialized and had a good time," Pelaez said.
But there were still remnants from the war he couldn't immediately put aside.
"I still felt a little uneasy and I remember looking behind my back every once in a while," Pelaez said.
After six months, and at the age of 20, he was finally discharged on July 6, 1946, at the rank of Private First Class.
"The first thing I remember was seeing the Statue of Liberty, and it was so beautiful. It was a great feeling because it meant I was finally home," Pelaez said.
When he got to Los Angeles, nobody was there to greet him.
"I had to crawl through a window to let myself in. First thing I did was call some relatives and then I took a shower," Pelaez said.
When his father arrived home, he was so happy to see Pelaez he pulled him out of the shower, soap and all.
Pelaez returned to school and entered the chiropractic field. He met Consuelo "Connie" Gutierrez while at school and later married her. The couple had two children: Belinda and Javier III.
Among other recognitions, Pelaez earned the Purple Heart, a WWII Victory Medal and a Good Conduct Medal for his time in the service.
Now 76, Pelaez is enjoying retired life. He doesn't think much about the war and says he doesn't feel a sense of pride because, for him, it was always just his job and he was only acting out of duty.
Mr. Pelaez was interviewed in Los Angeles, California, on March 23, 2002, by Luis Torres.