By Chelsea Franklin
Through his service during World War II, Edmundo Nieto learned about the hardships and horrors of war but also experienced different cultures, met a wide array of people, and participated in once-in-a-lifetime experiences that ultimately became part of history.
Just over 90 years old at the time of his interview, Nieto was all smiles and laughter when recounting those long gone days of his 20s.
He drove a truck around much of the European theater as part of the 933rd Field Artillery Battalion, an Army artillery unit. He did not recall engaging in combat. Instead, he remembers seeing cruel acts and starving concentration camp inmates. But he also befriended many people and dated a French girl.
At one point, his unit was attached to a French cavalry unit in Italy, and he recalls how tough and brutal those troops were. He heard that they were paid for each set of German ears they collected. He was told that the practice was stopped after complaints that some British and American soldiers had their ears cut off.
Once, when he was watching French soldiers disarm bombs, he saw a good friend dissolve into thin air when one of the bombs exploded.
His wartime experiences were light years away from his pre-war life. Nieto was born March 29, 1919, in the border town of Presidio, Texas. At the time, Presidio was a small farming community made up of "mostly Mexican Americans with a few gringos," he said.
His mother, Maria Vasquez, from El Paso, Texas, lost her U.S. citizenship when she married his father, Miguel Nieto, a Mexican citizen, due to a law at the time. She regained her U.S. citizenship but only after having to request it at the same time his father applied for citizenship.
Nieto was his father's only son and, he says, his mother's favorite. He had three younger sisters and two older half-sisters from his father's first marriage.
Spanish was Nieto's first language; he learned English in grade school. He spent his entire youth in Presidio and completed all of his public schooling there.
In high school, Nieto fell in love for the first time. The girl's name was Imelda Daly. The couple went to parties and danced, and sometimes he drove his 1929 Model A Ford to her family's home to sit with her on the porch swing. He said the pair had clean fun and that he truly loved her, but the romance ended when he went to Austin, Texas, for college at the same time she moved to Marfa, Texas.
After graduating from St. Edward's University with a business degree, Nieto went to work at AB Frank Co. in San Antonio. He was there for just about a year before he was drafted into the Army. He had tried to enlist while attending St. Edward's, but he failed the physical.
He remembered he was playing poker with a good friend when they received news of the attack on Pearl Harbor. By the following Monday, that friend was off to war, so Nieto decided to move back to Presidio because, as he said, he "knew they [the U.S. armed forces] were going to call me."
Nieto's Army basic training was at Camp Gruber in Oklahoma. He was the only Latino there during his six months of training, except for a short time when he was joined by another Latino, who was from California. He also spent three weeks with his outfit in Louisiana before boarding a troop carrier to be sent overseas.
Nieto and many of his comrades were seasick their first few nights onboard the ship. One time, he vomited off the side of the ship and a large wave knocked it back on him.
The first place Nieto landed overseas was in Africa. He said the time he spent with the men of his battery was "a lot of fun - more or less."
Because his unit was in charge of taking ammunition to stationed units, Nieto didn't have a home base and was always on the move.
In Italy, over a five-day rest period, Nieto was able to see Pope Pius XII at St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. He remembers the soldiers were so eager to kiss the pope's ring that the pope was actually toppled from his seat.
In Africa, the local people helped make things fun with their wine, Nieto said. One night, Nieto came across a bunch of men smoking, talking, drinking and listening to music. He later learned that the men were taking part in a wedding custom, waiting to see the "red flag" as proof the bride was a virgin when she wed.
In France, with the help of a Canadian comrade who knew the language, Nieto courted a pretty French girl. She had a sister who showed interest in the Canadian friend, so the two soldiers were invited to the sisters' home for a fancy meal on a French holiday.
Fortunately, Nieto was never seriously injured during war, but he did suffer from malaria for a time and was hit in the ankles by shrapnel when he was walking near a bridge that the Germans were attempting to bomb.
The final part of his time overseas was in Germany. Nieto was just outside a concentration camp the day the Jewish prisoners were released. He remembered how they were so hungry and thin; he witnessed a group of them eating a dead horse on the side of the road.
When the war was officially over, Nieto spent three months with occupation forces in Europe before being sent home. He received cords from the French armed forces and five service medals: Naples-Foggia, Rome-Arno, Southern France, Rhineland and Central Europe.
He was officially discharged in San Antonio with the rank of sergeant; immediately afterward, he caught a train back home where his entire family met him.
Nieto had a job waiting at his father's Miguel Nieto Department Store in Presidio, which the ex-GI eventually took over and later passed on to one of his four sons. Soon after returning home, Nieto married Socorro Herrera, whom he had met in Presidio on a week off from training camp. The two kept in touch via letters during his time overseas. Nieto still lives in Presidio.
Nieto says he is proud of his military service. "We were fighting for something."
Mr. Nieto was interviewed by Liliana V. Rodriguez in Presidio, Texas, on Aug. 3, 2010.