Charles Trujillo

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Interviewed by
Rea Ann Trotter
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By Melissa Duran

Charles "Junior" Trujillo remembers clearly the day Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. Hearing the reports on the radio didn’t give him a good understanding of what war was about.

"If you have never been into it [war], you cannot comprehend what it really is," Trujillo said, "No matter how good of an imagination you have."

But at the young age of 18, Trujillo was about to get his first taste of war.

Born in Walsenburg, Colo., on April 23, 1925, Trujillo is the oldest of nine children. His father, Charles Trujillo, was Indian, either Ute or Apache; his mother, Befria Sierra Trujillo, always stressed the importance of a good education, work ethic and religion. Trujillo attended a private Catholic school until his junior year of high school, when his family made the move to Avondale.

It was during his senior year of high school that Trujillo was drafted; he was sure he was coming back. After all, he said, all of his friends were fighting, why not go?

His mother, however, was a bit more wary. After giving her son a blessing, she sent him off to Camp Roberts, Calif., for 17 weeks of boot camp. During his training session, Trujillo said he "was volunteered" to go overseas, which, since he was planning on volunteering anyway, didn't bother him. He was a man with a mission, that's what he’d trained for, he said.

Even though he was willing to go overseas for his country, Trujillo felt unsure about killing people.

"My biggest conflict was with religion, 'Thou shalt not kill,' Trujillo said. "How do you deal with something like that?"

His rationalization: survival.

But misgivings conflicted him, both then and today.

"Somebody's got to pay," Trujillo resolved. "So come Judgment Day, somebody will have to answer."

After getting two weeks leave and a blessing from his mother, he reported to Ft. Ord, Calif. In this day and age, 18 may seem like too young of an age for getting shipped off to war, but Trujillo said young people were more independent in his day: Children required less attention and weren’t as spoiled. Parents were a lot stricter and pushed harder. It wasn't a matter of choice. There was no choice when it came to war. He had to do it.

Trujillo boarded the USS Elcoa Pritchard and shipped out some time within the months of August and September. He doesn’t recall the exact date he left Fort Ord, but remembers the "boring" ship ride. While some soldiers got seasick, he was hungry. He passed the time by playing pinochle on the troop ship with the other men. No one spoke of the war for the entire duration of the trip. Trujillo said the men wouldn't know what to talk about because no one had ever been there.

He arrived trained in Oro Bay, New Guinea, in September of 1944 and was re-assigned to the 24 Division, 21st Infantry Regiment, where he served as a lead scout. Instead of the usual rifle, Trujillo carried a Thompson submachine gun. The "Tommygun" first appeared in World War I, but gained wide use during World War II. It was the regarded as the most reliable submachine gun, although it was heavy and big. Even after other machine guns became available, many soldiers had a hard time parting with it, according to historical accounts.

In the latter part of October, Trujillo’s infantry division was assigned to Leyte, in the Philippines. He remembers arriving to the Gulf of Leyte on Oct. 20, 1944, the picture still painted clearly in his mind: The Japanese were on one side of the island and they were on the other. He was assigned to a tank in his division. That's when U.S. troops began their assault. The mud was thigh high, making it difficult to maneuver a tank, but the men finally reached the top of the mountain. Trujillo was in the Battle of Leyte from October 23 through October 26 of 1944.

The Japanese were still on one side of the mountain when he left for the Philippines’ Samar on Dec. 15, 1944, almost two months after arriving in Leyte. It was in Samar that the Japanese gave the Americans "the biggest Christmas -- fireworks." Around dusk the Japanese started firing artillery – specifically, 8-inch shells. He was amazed at how fast a person can dig when they are getting shot at. In the end, his 6-foot-deep hole saved his life.

"There's nothing stronger than the earth: Ships, planes, boats, anything," Trujillo said. "They're all stopped by Mother Earth."

On the ground is where he wanted to stay. While men were fighting to get out of the infantry, he was fighting to get in, as it was his military occupation specialty. Trujillo said he probably walked 5,000 miles during his experience in World War II and the Korean War.

His first battle at Leyte gave him good preparation for the battles to come. Before the first assault, he recalled being a little scared, but adjusting.

"Before it started, you're scared, but once it started, your body just adjusts to it," he said. "I mean, you accept it, I guess.

"You're always a little leery, scared where you're going," he said. "You're always pushing, pushing, pushing. You don't know where they're going to start shooting at you or when it's going to start ... But once it starts, you don't have time to be scared."

His youth got him through those difficult times, Trujillo added.

Trujillo experienced no opposition during his stay in Samar. He said their presence was merely occupational. They were guarding a new Air Force Base. However, they received a very important mission on New Year's Eve of 1945: to establish a beachhead at the island of Marinduque. They arrived on PT boats, but used an eight-man rubber raft to reach the beach quietly. They found out from some Filipinos that the Japanese were being housed in a big building in the small downtown of Buena Vista. With the helpful news, the U.S. troops surrounded the building. It wasn't until they found out about the Battle of Luzon that they were ordered to get the Japanese out of the building. With the use of 3.5-inch bazookas, the U.S. began shooting at the building. The Japanese never surrendered; instead, they died for their country.

After Marinduque, Trujillo moved to Mindinau, the biggest island in the Philippines. Because the Japanese had occupied the island for three years, Trujillo said there were trenches about 4-feet deep across the whole country: The Japanese never had to get above ground. That's exactly how Trujillo got buried. The artillery hit too close to him and left him buried in the dirt with only his head and part of his arms sticking out. He dug himself out. Once out, he followed a trench toward a road, at which point he was too tired to continue and lay down. After they found him, troops placed him on the windshield of a jeep and took him to the hospital. He’d hurt his back, but that wasn't enough to let him go home. He was sent back to the line.

During the invasion of Mindinau, the U.S. dropped the atomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. In fact, Trujillo said, he didn’t hear about the end of the war for at least two weeks. Later, when he entered Okiyama, Japan, in November of 1945, he saw the war-induced ruins of the city.

Trujillo was discharged on April 12, 1946, a week and a half before his 21st birthday. He said the war forced him to grow up. But when he came back, society wasn't the same as it was when he left. Then again, neither was Trujillo.

"When you're young, you take everything for granted. You go to war and you come back; you'd be surprised how much you've learned besides the history," he said. "You learn the facts of life -- how people exist compared to us.''

Trujillo also graduated from high school, got married and began raising his own family. He's thankful for his parents, education and religion making him what he is today.

"My mother always said, 'The only way to beat a white man is to get an education,'" Trujillo said.

But for Trujillo, WWII wasn’t the last of his time overseas: At the age of 26, he was sent to serve in the Korean War. Now a seasoned combat veteran, he found himself in the midst of war once again.

Trujillo said the Korean War was different from WW II in that when the war started in 1950, he was unsure who was at fault, adding that there was no defeat, no great ending -- only the loss of money, time and people.

"Nobody can live through two of those wars. By the grace of God, I am still here today," Trujillo said.

Now 76, Trujillo has never been the same physically since fighting in the wars. He has had open-heart surgery, a lung removed and caught pneumonia 43 times. He also has cold knees that he said hurt just like a tooth ache.

Regardless, the idea of fighting for the red, white and blue still gives him a great sense of satisfaction.

"For me, today the American flag is worth fighting for. And it miffs me off to no end the way it's treated," Trujillo said. "That is America to me, the American flag. I don't care what anybody else says."

Mr. Trujillo was interviewed in Avondale, Colorado, on December 14, 2000, by Rea Ann Trotter.