Tribute provided by Grace Charles; daughter of Mr. Sanchez's cousin, Voces subject Joe Guajardo
Juan Sanchez, an Army soldier, rarely talked about his experiences during World War II. Now, dementia clouds some of the decorated World War II veteran's memories.
However, when his cousin's daughter, Grace Charles, asked what he remembered about the war, Sanchez simply responded: "He said he'd come back, and he did."
Sanchez, of course, was referring to Gen. Douglas MacArthur's vow, "I shall return," which the commander of American forces had made upon escaping from the Philippines to Australia under the onslaught of the Japanese in March 1942.
Although Sanchez had not arrived in the Pacific Theater of Operations when MacArthur made his promise, he was on his way to the Philippines when MacArthur returned there in October 1944 to lead the Allied forces in wresting the archipelago, island by island, from the Japanese.
Sanchez was born to Zacharias Sanchez and Maria Louisa Medina in Corpus Christi, Texas, in June 1925. His mother died when he was young, and he took it very hard. His father remarried, but Sanchez lived with aunts or wherever he could find shelter. According to Charles, Sanchez may never have gone to school and faced much discrimination. He spent time with his cousins, who stole bicycles, fixed them up and resold them as a means to survive, according to the family. He was very close to his cousin, Joe Guajardo, Charles' father.
On Dec. 31, 1941, Sanchez enlisted in San Antonio. Like many Mexican-Americans young men, he felt that there weren't many opportunities for him at home, and it was his duty to answer the call to arms.
Sanchez, who was in the 2nd Battalion, 126th Infantry Regiment, 32nd Infantry Division of the Michigan National Guard, departed the United Sates from San Francisco in April 1942 and arrived in Australia on May 14.
Although Sanchez didn't say much about his war experiences he did mention having worked as a messenger. Every three days, he traveled at night through a jungle to deliver messages to the front lines and returned to his camp.
"It was hard," Charles recalled him saying once, "because I never knew when I might not make it back."
Sanchez's unit history, however, reveals a much more detailed description of his experiences. Sanchez had arrived by Sept. 28, 1942, at Port Moresby in New Guinea, then an Australian territory. His unit was attached to the 7th Australian Division from Nov. 19 until Jan. 9, 1943 and participated in the Buna-Sanananda operation in New Guinea.
According to "Papuan Campaign," a pamphlet by the U.S. Army Center of Military History, the Japanese Army arrived at Buna, Gona, and Sanananda in July 1942, threatening the Papua New Guinean capital of Port Moresby and northeastern Australia. Australian and American troops had to work together to force the Japanese out. The 2nd Battalion, 126th Regiment had the grueling task of crossing the Owen Stanley Mountains on foot. The trail was rugged, and rose above 8,000 feet. According to "Papua," another pamphlet by the U.S. Army Center of Military History, diarrhea and dysentery affected many soldiers and steady rain forced them to wade through neck-deep water when crossing streams. At higher elevations, the ridges were so steep that the men had to cling to vines to keep going. It took five weeks for Sanchez's unit to complete the march and arrive in Soputa on Nov. 20, 1942. "The 2nd Battalion of the 126th mounted 12 attacks against enemy bunkers during December 8-11, but it could not break through. according to "Papua." However, it praised "Americans from the 126th Infantry who were showing commendable tenacity themselves in holding a roadblock before Sanananda against repeated Japanese attacks." By Jan. 22, the Allied forces gained control, ending the Buna-Sonananda mission. Sanchez had returned to Australia on Jan. 21, arrived Oct. 23, 1943 at the Battle of Goodenough Island, in the Solomon Sea east of New Guinez. He was attached to Lazaretto Task Force on Goodenough.
On Dec. 15, he landed at Milne Bay, Papua New Guinea. He participated in Operation Michaelmas and helped attack Saidor, an airfield captured by the U.S. and converted to an Allied air base. Sanchez landed on Morotai Island, located in present-day Indonesia, on Sept. 14, 1944, and in November rejoined the 32nd Division at sea, as it made its way to the Philippines. He landed at Leyte on Nov. 14, 1944, around midpoint in the Battle of Leyte, which launched the return of MacArthur and the Allied forces to the Philippines. Sanchez's unit then moved to Lingayen Gulf on Jan 27, 1945, as the Allies prepared for the Battle of Luzon.
Sanchez returned to the United States and was discharged on June 13, 1945. He received the Asiatic-Pacific Theater Campaign Medal with four bronze stars; the Philippine Liberation Ribbon with one bronze star; a Distinguished Unit Citation, and the Purple Heart. According to Charles, Sanchez didn't remember much about how he earned those commendations.
After the war, Sanchez returned to Corpus Christi. In 1948, he married Hilda Perez of Cuero, Texas. Perez was the sister of Edith Perez, who married Sanchez's cousin, Guajardo, in 1943. Juan Sanchez and his wife had five children.
Sanchez was an active baseball player, who took the field in Mexican-American leagues with other returning war veterans. He loved to dance and, according to Charles, was one of the best jitterbug dancers around. He worked with Petty Construction, until he retired and moved to Freer, Texas. He stayed there until he required treatment for cancer. At the time of the interview, Sanchez was living cancer-free in Corpus Christi.