By Shaun L. Swegman
Hermi Salas was an 18-year-old private in the Marine Corps when he boarded the ship that took him from his homeland and into the war. It was Dec. 6, 1943, almost two years to the day from the attack on Pearl Harbor that brought America into World War II.
Private Salas; who was assigned to Company E, 2nd Battalion of the 21st Marines, 3rd Marine Corps Division; waited on a ship for three weeks as backup for men fighting on Saipan. Then, three days after D-Day, July 21, 1944, the military sent him to his first campaign on Guam.
To make the landing, the troops had to ride in amphibious tractors, floating landing craft propelled by tank-like treads and sometimes propellers, because coral reefs made the beach too shallow for traditional landing craft.
“The first thing I did was I headed for a coconut tree. And as I hit the deck, I felt something on my face, and I said, ‘Oh, I’m hit, I’m hit,’” he recalled.
A bullet had nailed the tree above him and pelted his face with bark.
About half of Salas’ 240-man company became causalities as they made there way off the landing craft to the beach.
“They kept shooting at you. You couldn’t see anything until we got farther in,” he said.
Salas was tapped as a scout while on Guam. During one mission, he was shot at by other Americans. The United States Army had landed on the other side of the island, and approaching soldiers mistook the Marine uniforms for Japanese ones that were a similar color. Salas had one of his men use semaphore flags to communicate with the Army troops and thereby stop the “friendly” fire.
It was during the Guam campaign that Salas would be wounded in combat for the first time. An American plane, flying a ground-support mission, accidentally dropped a bomb right in the middle of his platoon. He “just had little scratches,” Salas said, but others in the platoon weren’t so lucky. The blast killed six or seven men, he said.
Salas was sent to the first aid area of a hospital ship, where he was treated and given the choice of either returning to the States or staying in combat. He chose to rejoin his group and continue fighting. By the time he got back to his unit, Guam had been secured. Salas began training for his second campaign: Iwo Jima.
The seas near Iwo Jima were exceptionally rough. It was so bad that if a man were to fall into the ocean trying to board a landing craft from the ship, he’d be left behind to drown, since anyone attempting to rescue him would likely be lost as well.
“You carry somewhere around 50 pounds of equipment,” Salas said. “I had my grenade launcher, my M1 [rifle], my bayonet, my wire cutters, my extra ammo – I mean, you’d carry quite a load.”
Once on Iwo Jima, Salas learned the soft, black volcanic soil of the island helped reduce casualties. Artillery shells would get buried in the ground before they could explode and shower men with deadly shrapnel. Yet that didn’t mean the American servicemen on Iwo Jima had an easy time of it.
“You’d gain a hundred yards, lose 200 the next day,” Salas said. “You’d gain, back and forth.”
Salas was wounded again while fighting on Iwo Jima. He recalls being in his foxhole when a shell burst in the air above him, shrapnel piercing his left leg. He had to be carried two miles before he could be treated for the wound. On a hospital ship for the second time, a nurse remembered him from his previous injury a few months before.
“Can’t you keep out of trouble,” Salas remembers her saying.
While waiting for his leg to recover, Salas heard his unit would be returning to the States. Once his wound healed, he was released from the hospital ship and put on “light duty” – garbage collection in his case. Salas’ work was anything but light, however, as the garbage cans weighed 50 pounds empty, he says.
“In the Marine Corps, there’s no such thing as light duty,” Salas said. “They don’t want you to be on light duty.”
Soon afterward, he was sent back to Hawaii. It was a long journey for Salas, who was put on a Dutch ship that took a month to get from Guam to Honolulu. The ship was unescorted, and had to zig-zag to avoid enemy submarines, Salas says. During his first liberation on Hawaii, he remembers going out and getting five hamburgers and washing them down with milk.
He eventually made it back to the States; Uncle Sam sent him to work in the brig at a naval base in Corpus Christi, Texas, before discharging him at the rank of Corporal on Nov. 1, 1945.
A few years later, he would change the name his parents gave him, Hermenejildo, to Hermi, the shortened version his third-grade teacher at Lock Hill Elementary School in his hometown of San Antonio, Texas, gave him.
Born in San Antonio on April 13, 1925, he was the second of Felix Salas and Juanita Silva Salas’ six children. Both his parents were natives of Monterrey, Nuevo Leon, Mexico. He says his father worked as a handyman and janitor at Orsinger, a car dealership.
Salas and his siblings grew up in a rural area just outside of downtown San Antonio.
“It was a rough life at first, but we got accustomed to it,” he said.
He was 16 on Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941, the day the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. He and his family heard about it on the radio that evening, and the next day at school some of his friends started talking about enlisting in the Armed Forces. The minimum age for enlisting was 17 back then, but parents could sign a waiver allowing their sons to join at 16. Though some of his friends joined, Salas recalls his parents insisting he finish high school first.
He joined the Marines on June 18, 1943, two months after graduating from Thomas A. Edison High School. Technically, he was drafted; however, prior to being drafted, Salas says he spoke to a Marine sergeant who informed him he could choose to join the Corps if he were called in a general draft. In August of 1943, he was sent to basic training at Camp Elliot in San Diego, Calif.
“We had brawls all the time,” said Salas of his basic training days.
Due to the local Zoot Suiters, who’d attack servicemen when they were on liberty, Salas says he learned quickly not to go into town alone.
“They hated us on account of we were messing around with the girls,” he said with a chuckle.
On base, racial tension between Southern Anglos and the few Mexicans Americans caused altercations. Salas says he and his Mexican American friends didn’t fight alone, however, as ethnic Italians from New York and New Jersey often helped them out.
“We seemed to get along real good with them,” said Salas, adding that the fighting ended when his unit was sent overseas.
“Once you’re in combat, you forget everything. You’re buddy-buddy,” he said.
After the war, Salas went to school to learn electronics. Back in San Antonio, he started working at Kelly Air Force Base as a radio technician in 1948.
In November of 1950, during the Korean War, he was recalled to active duty. He was promoted to Sergeant and continued to work on electronics for most of this second stint.
Salas married Carmen Perez Salas in 1955; they eventually had four children. He worked at Kelly AFB until his retirement in 1980.
Mr. Salas was interviewed in San Antonio, Texas, on April 20, 2005, by Chris Riley.