By Laura Barganier
Becoming a doctor and helping others have a better life was Guy Vasquez’s dream growing up after witnessing his father die of a brain tumor.
Life worked out differently for Vasquez, however, as the United States drafted him into the Navy during his first year as a premedical student at The University of Tampa in 1944.
“[The war] interrupted my ambition, what I was preparing for,” he said.
Vasquez developed high goals for himself growing up as a child in Tampa, Fla., and modeled his strong work ethic after his parents’. As the son of Sicilian and Spanish parents – his mother, Mary D’Arpa Vasquez, being Sicilian and his father, Joseph Vasquez, being both nationalities – he learned quickly the value of hard work as he witnessed the effort they put into developing their lives.
Helping his father and uncle, James D’Arpa, operate their awning business and personal farm beginning at the young age of six, Vasquez says he and his siblings contributed every day after school to maintain what he calls the middle-class lifestyle.
Upon receiving his draft letter, Vasquez was sworn into service at Camp Blanding, near Jacksonville in North Central Florida, before boarding a train for boot camp in Bainbridge, Md. After preparing to become a Navy corpsman, Vasquez trained at Bethesda Naval Hospital in Bethesda, Md., in epidemiology.
He made a Navy friend in Bethesda and traveled with him to his Pennsylvania hometown. On a visit to the city, Vasquez made a date with a girl he met on the train. That same day he met his future wife – only the girl from the train wasn’t her.
Later, he went on a double date with his friend and fell for Virginia Sweigart, the friend’s girlfriend’s friend.
“My wife intrigued me a lot more,” he said. “So I forgot about the other girl. And from there, it was just me and her.”
The two dated for a month while in Maryland, but the Navy sent him to San Francisco.
The Navy corpsmen set sail for a two and a half month trip, which took the long route to pickup other seamen in Hawaii and avoid enemy ships. The boat arrived in Samar, Philippines, in 1944. Because the ultimate destination of Manila hadn’t been secured, Vasquez says he and the medical staff waited in Samar.
Once secured, Pharmacist Mate Second Class Vasquez moved to Manila, where he’d serve for the next two years. He says he had many responsibilities, including serving on the malaria control unit, rodent control unit and promiscuity control unit.
Malaria was rampant in the Philippines, as 2 million cases existed at all times during the war, according to the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences. Testing the water and treating soldiers for malaria were tasks for the unit, as well as spraying the city with a mosquito-killing fog once a week.
The malaria unit not only had an obligation to the soldiers, but to the citizens of the Philippines. Vasquez recalls the group going to homes, educating the locals on how to properly empty water vessels serving as breeding grounds for mosquitoes.
“They were so thankful for us,” he said. “They invited us to their homes and gave us what they had” to eat.
However, the units weren’t always successful at improving citizens’ lives.
To combat the rodent crisis, Vasquez would create a paste of peanut butter, oatmeal and poison and place it conveniently for the rats. Some of the starving children in the area knew the concoction was poisonous, but being inquisitive, decided to eat the mixture anyway. Vasquez recalls one child dying.
“It bothered us so much, so they were more careful about where we put them,” he said.
The final unit Vasquez served on was the promiscuity unit, necessary due to the area’s widespread prostitution of minors and the GIs’ use of their services. The group aimed to prevent sexually transmitted diseases by passing out contraceptives and prophylactics to GIs.
Vasquez recalls an anecdote regarding the unit’s supplies in which the friend who introduced him to his wife wanted to celebrate the victory over Germany. The friend took the contraceptives, blew them up with aerosol tanks and let them go out the window.
“You could see them all over Manila,” said Vasquez between laughs.
The daily struggles of the corpsmen weren’t as humorous, however.
One night in Samar, debris from a construction sight crashed into the tent of the medics, causing a psychiatrist to have a mental breakdown. Vasquez had to escort the doctor, like other patients with mental debilitation, to the hospital on the island of Leyte.
Vasquez says the emotional strain of the war made it difficult for him to operate at times, but he drew upon God and Virginia to keep him going. He wrote her every day and sent her an etched chest from Payete Laguna for her birthday one year.
As a Latino serving in the war, Vasquez says he didn’t suffer from discrimination. Since Filipinos spoke Spanish, the military considered him to possess a linguistic gift not many others in his unit had.
Though he won several recognitions for his service, he says he no longer recalls them.
“I was interested in getting back to college. … It didn’t matter to me,” he said.
His brother also served in the Navy and fought in the Battle of Okinawa, the foremost of naval battles in World War II. A kamikaze hit his ship, but he survived.
Vasquez was discharged in May of 1946 at the rank of Pharmacist Mate Second Class. He returned to the U.S. to marry Virginia and take advantage of the GI Bill, studying at Duquesne University and Stetson University to be a doctor. He never went to medical school, however, instead taking over his father’s business later in Tampa. He and Virginia have two children: Bruce and Linda. He has one grandchild and two great-grandchildren.
Vasquez believes he has lived a full life.
“I am going to be 83 in just a couple of months,” he told the Project in January of 2008. “I guess that is a pretty full life.”
Mr. Vasquez was interviewed in Tampa, Florida, on November 11, 2006, by Natasha Samreny.