By Brent Wistrom
Jose Sena remembers how his best friends suckered him into enlisting in the U.S. Army at the start of World War II.
As a 17-year-old, Sena was hanging around with his twin brother and some of his friends one day when they began talking about how good soldiers looked in their uniforms.
After bantering about the redeeming qualities of wearing a soldier's uniform, Sena and his friends convinced each other that they would volunteer for military service the next day.
"So, I was like a crazy fool that arrived [at the induction office] the next day," Sena recalled. "I volunteered, but they stayed back. They were all talk."
Sena says following through on the light-hearted pact may have been a hidden blessing: His brother Maximiliano, as well as his friends, were later drafted and didn't have the choices Sena did as an enlistee.
Sena entered the service in January of 1942 and was sent to Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, for basic training. After a short stay, he was transferred to the 359th Air Corps in Tucson, Ariz. Later, he was assigned to Company C of the 1880th Engineer Aviation Battalion.
He says military experience was often frustrating for Latinos, who weren't always given fair opportunities.
"If it comes to clean pots and pans, Mexicans will do it. If it comes to guard the camp or guard the road, Mexicans will do it. If it comes to clean the snow off the road, same thing," he said. "They used to put us so far down that we didn't have no chance at all."
Following basic training, Sena's unit was dispatched to the Far East. There, he operated large dirt movers and loaders as they cleared a path for Allied convoys.
One of their most important assignments occurred along the China-Burma Road, which had been taken by the Japanese early in the war. The Japanese were able to cut off supplies from China to newly captured Burma.
Sena says working on the road was often a daunting task, as he and his crew would often clear a pathway at night. The light from the equipment would illuminate both the road and jungle, where wild animals prowled.
One of Sena's most frightening moments came when a tiger jumped up on surfacing machinery he was operating. To escape the tiger, Sena jumped into a toolbox atop the vehicle and hid behind a steel door. The tiger tore at the seat of the grader with its large paws while Sena was inside the box, he says.
"If I'd been inside the grader, he could've broken the windows, but I got inside the toolbox, and that's where I saved myself," Sena said.
He didn’t suffer a significant injury until a landmine exploded on the China-Burma Road. He says he was operating a grader on the shoulder of the road when the grader struck an explosive that lodged a four-inch piece of metal into his head above his right ear.
"You could see the wheels on the grader, they were just like pieces of rag waving with the wind," Sena said.
Then he says he felt something warm on his head -- blood. He fell unconscious and remembered nothing until he awoke in a hospital.
Sena says his feet, waist and chest were strapped to the hospital bed to prevent him from leaving. He was under the constant watch of an MP, who’d accompany him even to the bathroom so he wouldn’t escape.
"I was not in this world," said Sena, explaining why he was being closely watched. "I went un poco loco."
Among other decorations, Sena earned the Purple Heart, a Good Conduct Medal and a Victory Medal. He was honorably discharged Dec. 27, 1945, at the rank of Private First Class. Today, the memories of war and faraway places like China, Burma and India still resonate in his mind.
Sena gets emotional when describing his time in Calcutta, India.
His face saddens and his tone revs up as he begins talking about the overwhelming poverty he saw in Calcutta. He says he was confronted by children whose bodies were frail and malnourished, and that they pleaded in broken English, "Me poor bastard, me no mother, no father, no brother, no sister.”
"If it was up to me, I'd take a piece of bread out of my mouth and give it to them because they would survive," Sena said.
He recalls giving his ration box to the children and watching them tear through it and divide the food.
"There's nothing that breaks my heart and brings so many memories [more] than those poor kids," he said.
As a result of his experience in India, he also says he returned home with a sense of understanding and appreciation for his blessings and for living in a country like the United States, despite the fact that he came back with impaired vision from the landmine explosion.
Upon Sena’s return, he married his longtime sweetheart, Victoria Otero, on Sept. 28, 1946. They had 11 children: six boys and five girls, including two sets of twins.
Mr. Sena was interviewed in San Antonio, Texas, on November 4, 2002, by Brian Daugherty.