Arnif G. Nerio

Arnif G. Nerio
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Interviewed by
Jeffery K. Watanabe
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By Caren Panzer

Arnif G. Nerio felt his life was really coming together in the fall of 1942. While so many were still out of work, he’d just landed a job at General Motors in Saginaw, Mich.

Just three months earlier, he’d married Trinidad Ayala, and they were expecting a child.

When he was drafted into the U.S. Army on Dec. 4, 1942, his life changed.

Nerio pleaded with the officials to let him wait until his daughter was born. The Army assured him that his family would be taken care of and shipped him to Little Rock, Ark., for basic training. He was 20.

Nerio was sent to the South Pacific, where he saw combat. In the meantime, Trinidad was forced to find work at home to provide for the couple's daughter. They weren’t reunited until after his duty tour ended in October of 1945, after World War II had ended.

As it turned out, Nerio says the Army hadn’t exactly been good to its word about providing for his pregnant wife at the time of his draft. He was in boot camp when he discovered Trinidad wasn’t eligible to receive financial help from the government because their baby had been born before a certain date.

Although Nerio sent Trinidad money every chance he could, he constantly worried about her having to fend for herself while he was fighting in the South Pacific, assigned to the 20th Infantry Regiment, 6th Infantry Division.

Nerio recalls his first encounter with racism on arriving at the military installation in Arkansas. Soldiers were told to split off into groups of six and put their possessions in the barracks. He says he was the first one in the barracks, but no one followed him because they didn’t want to share a barracks with a Mexican American.

After a while, a sergeant came by and ordered five white soldiers into the barracks with him. Nerio says they ignored him.

He won the men over one night when two of the soldiers in his barracks were late for guard duty. The men left their beds unmade and risked admonishment from their senior officers.

After they left, Nerio says he climbed out of his bed, made their beds and tucked the sheets so tight you could bounce a quarter off of them. The men were so pleased by his actions they brought him extra food and immediately befriended him.

After being transferred to New Guinea, arriving at Milne Bay on Feb. 18, 1944, Nerio vividly recalls several days of intense fighting. Three other Latinos were in the division with him and Nerio remembers in detail their names and where they were from.

He says he was close with many of his comrades, and for the first time in his life, people he knew personally were dying before his eyes.

Nerio recalls his first march through the jungles of New Guinea.

"All of a sudden, one of the men dropped. He had been shot in the head, but his helmet had saved him. It had a big dent in it and the man said he would frame it when he got home for saving his life. [Then] he stood up from behind the tree and was shot in the head and killed," Nerio said.

The next few days put all of his courage, strength and survival skills to the test, he says. A sniper in a tree was wounding and killing men all around him. One of the lieutenants was quickly killed.

One evening, he says they could feel the enemy closing in when Japanese soldiers "started banging on the trees and yelling 'Banzai! Banzai!'''

"They were slapping the trees with these pieces of wood, trying to make us nervous," Nerio said.

He set down his rifle to dig a foxhole to shoot from. When Nerio looked up, two Japanese soldiers were aiming guns at his head.

"I was trying to fall forward and couldn't. It felt like someone was holding me back. Then they fired at me," Nerio recalled.

At the same time that the Japanese fired, a fellow American soldier opened fire and shot the two gunmen dead, saving Nerio's life. He says had he moved forward, he would have been killed.

With so many casualties around them, Nerio says the men in his unit began to look to him for leadership. At one point, he says he decided it was too dangerous to continue and told the sergeant he was pulling back. He was ordered to stay put, but began pulling back anyway.

"The sergeant said, 'Nerio, bring your men in.' I didn't have any men; I was just a private. The guys wanted me to take charge," Nerio recalled. "I was too young to realize how much that should scare me."

After Nerio began leading the men back, there was an explosion behind them, knocking them all off their feet. Most of those who’d remained were killed.

Following the explosion, Nerio says he delivered morphine to the wounded until the medics arrived. After their division captured the rest of the island, he says he was taken to a hospital to treat damage in his inner ears.

He was shipped back to a hospital in Indianapolis, Ind., for treatment.

Nerio was granted a 30-day furlough to return home and see his wife and daughter for Christmas of 1944. He remembers a whirlwind month of restaurants, Clark Gable movies, westerns and dancing.

After reporting back to duty, he was sent to Miami to recuperate further.

In the winter of 1944, Nerio was sent to Camp Wolters, Texas, where he trained soldiers in Judo, bayonet usage and first aid. As an instructor, he had many opportunities for promotion and increased responsibility, but the idea made him uncomfortable.

"They were trying to make something out of me," Nerio said. "But I like to be with the men."

He was later transferred to Seattle, Wash., and remained there with the Coast Guard until the end of the war.

Nerio says he was happy to be going home to his family in Michigan at last. Although he came home a hero to friends and family, he was confronted with racism he had seldom experienced while a soldier.

"When I'm in uniform, they treated me just like everybody else. But when I took my suit off and put on regular clothes, everything changed. There wasn't as much respect," Nerio said. "One time when I was eating in uniform, the mailman came in and paid for my meal. Then other places wouldn't even let me in."

Nerio was relieved to find that General Motors had held his job for him in his absence, and he began working immediately. He was employed there more than 30 years and has been retired for the last 28.

Nerio celebrated his 80th birthday in September of 2002, and was delighted by a huge surprise party given by all of his relatives.

Nerio grew up with seven sisters and six brothers. He was born in Baxter, Texas, but his family settled in Saginaw, Mich., after his father couldn’t find long-term work in Texas or Minnesota.

He remembers always helping out in the fields with his family and having a happy childhood. His most vivid memory of his mother is of helping her put the laundry through a large wringer in their house. He remembers his father as a fair disciplinarian who worked hard to get them everything they needed.

Before going to work for General Motors, Nerio spent time in the Civilian Conservation Corps. He was the only Latino in the group at Iron River, Mich. He learned how to fell trees, plant telephone poles and splice wire.

When asked what he thinks of today's generation of Latinos, Nerio voiced some concerns. He says young people don’t have the same amount of accountability and discipline as those of his generation.

"Sure, we got into fights, but we didn't have time to get in gangs or cause any serious trouble," Nerio said. "There was always work to be done."

Nerio reflects about what advice he’d give the young people who may be sent to Iraq soon. Then he gives some final, humble words of wisdom based on everything he has seen, all he has accomplished and all the hard lessons he learned during the war:

"You're in the Army and you're all in it together," he said. "If you see someone aiming at your buddy, you better get them. That's what you're there for, to watch each other."

Nerio says war isn’t about land acquisition, intricate battle plans or securing resources; it’s a time to come together, a time to look out for your buddy and do what is right.

Mr. Nerio was interviewed in Saginaw, Michigan, on October 19, 2002, by Jeffery K. Watanabe.