By Barbara Gibbon
Despite being in an infantry unit that saw some of the most fighting during World War II, Joseph Diaz takes it all in stride. His memory hasn't faded over the years, and neither have the realities of fighting a war.
Diaz was born August 11, 1918, in Kansas City, Mo., where his parents, Jose Juan Diaz and Maria Garcia had emigrated from Nayarit and Nuevo Leon, Mexico.
The eldest of four sons, Diaz believes the railroad brought his parents to Kansas City. Later, the Diaz family moved to an established Latino community on the South Side of Chicago in the early 1920s, where young Diaz attended school.
After his father died in 1927, Diaz quit school to help support his family. His first job was in a steel mill factory. He found employment with Amour & Co. during the World's Fair in Chicago in 1933 and 1934. And, eventually, he joined Paco Pera Juan's traditional Mexican dance group, which performed in the Mexican Villa area of the fair.
"We weren't getting much money but we were there," said Diaz with a laugh.
After the World's Fair, Diaz again worked in a factory in 1941. He met his future wife, Juanita Cruz, in Indiana in 1939. She played the violin, guitar and organ, a perfect accompaniment to Diaz's dancing.
When Diaz received his draft notice in late 1941, he was already married and a father to two young daughters. He reported to the enlistment site, was sworn in and sent into quarantine for three weeks before he began his basic training. He says he understood the burden he was taking on, but wasn’t overwhelmed.
"We were told before we went what we were there for and not to bring personal matters of any kind," Diaz recalled.
After basic training at Camp Grant in Texas, Diaz was placed in the 3rd Infantry Division, and endured three or four months of training before he was sent to New York to board the Queen Mary for a 12-day trip across the Atlantic Ocean. Fortunately for Diaz, he says he never felt seasick.
After the assault on Casablanca Port in Morocco, a favorite spot to him because of its later Hollywood fame, everything began moving at a fast pace. Diaz says soldiers were always wondering where they were headed. He was the only Mexican in his unit, which included Audie Murphy, the most decorated combat soldier in WWII. Murphy admonished soldiers not to waste ammunition, particularly because their M-1s were loaded only one bullet at a time, Diaz said.
Once he landed in Morocco, his division swept into Tunisia, where fighting subsided, and Diaz thought he was heading home.
Unfortunately, there was more fighting to come, against the German General Erwin Rommel. By marching or riding on tanks and trucks, Diaz quickly moved into Palermo, Italy, where soldiers were re-building the area. From Palermo, he headed to Naples, reaching the beaches at a dangerous point. He recalls the hot ashes and lava pouring down, and the LSD boats that eventually saved them.
"The day that we landed, Mount Vesuvius was erupting," Diaz said. "We were fortunate to get out on the boats."
Diaz recalls mild weather and heavy fighting for a year during his quick maneuvering across Africa and into Italy. His unit was moving so fast he says the artillery soldiers didn’t have time to put their guns down to set up.
When his unit reached Belgium, movement slowed to prepare for attacks in Germany. Their location was always secretive, but Diaz still sent letters home to his wife and children. Diaz's wife later told him she’d get news of his supposed whereabouts and follow his route on a map.
Diaz says he saw buddies hurt and soldiers in body bags. But, since the unit moved so quickly, there wasn’t enough time to grieve for the dead soldiers.
"It just got into you, but you had to keep on going ahead," he said.
Diaz's unit had plans to invade Berlin when, in April of 1945, he got word the war was over.
"There were more tears than you could count," Diaz said. "But at that time, we thought we were going home."
Officers told Diaz a point system determined who went home and who stayed. Fortunately, he had enough points to return, but his excitement was short-lived: The 3rd Infantry Division received orders to pull soldiers out of the mountains in Germany to go to Japan.
The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended the war in Asia before the division arrived, however, so the plane changed course for Florida while en route to Japan. When Diaz arrived in the United States, no bands or people greeted him; he was simply instructed to go to the airplane hanger, where a truck came to take him to the barracks.
From Florida, Diaz began a long journey home, starting with three weeks at a quarantine fort. He then headed to New York, where he boarded a train for Chicago. Diaz was discharged while at Fort Sheridan.
Finally, on August 25, 1945, he knocked on the door of his home. And when his wife opened it, she asked,
"Who is this?" Diaz recalled his wife asking upon opening the door.
"This is your old man," he replied.
He says his children didn’t know who he was, since he left for war when they were so young.
Once back home, Diaz tried to transition back into the working world. He had hopes of obtaining a better job upon his return, but ended up leaving the Armour factory he worked for before he served in the war. Diaz worked for Drill Revere Camera Co. and Apanall in Chicago before retiring at Central Steel Co. in 1983.
Diaz now has about 149 great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren, and visits his wife, who is ill and staying in Lynwood, Ill., with her daughter due to the cold temperatures.
Diaz earned several decorations, including a Combat Infantry Badge and a European Theater Campaign Ribbon. He says he didn’t get the Panther Badge Medal that was supposed to be awarded to him, and that he lost his discharge papers at some point after the war.
Diaz’s service in the war gave him a perspective he thinks younger generations cannot understand. He says war must be watched from different points of view, and many times it is "kill or be killed."
At the same time, however, he notes that experience is life affirming.
"It's the talk and what you see and what you have heard and what you have done that makes you realize there's a place for you in living," Diaz said. "Enjoy it while you can, because there is no such day as tomorrow."
Mr. Diaz was interviewed in Chicago, Illinois, on March 3, 2003, by William Luna.