By Amy Bauer
By the age of 20, Leova Tellez Urias had already experienced segregation, the affects of the Great Depression, battle at the front lines during World War II and imprisonment by German soldiers. Now, at age 76, he looks back on his experiences.
Born Sept. 28, 1925, Urias grew up in Sonora, Texas, with his parents, Jesus and Leocadia, and a house full of sisters, four to be exact. Urias, known to his friends as L.T., said this was quite an adventure. "At times it got pretty hectic," he said laughing.
But by the grace of God, and a lot of tolerance, Urias survived. A religious man, he attended weekly service at First Baptist Church. "We're a Christian family," Urias said. "My mother taught us to go to church."
Urias spent his school days at L.W. Elliott High School. It was here that he was faced with his first taste of discrimination: His classmates were all Latino.
"We were segregated from the whites, the Anglos," Urias said. "They wouldn't let us go to the Anglos' high school."
The classes were also all taught in English. Even after returning from war, no real changes had been made in the school system.
"I came back from the war in 1946 and it was still segregated," Urias said.
When the Great Depression struck in 1929, many families suffered from economic decline. Fortunately, Urias’ father kept his steady job as a janitor.
"We were kind of lucky because my dad had a good job," Urias said. “We didn't have much, but we were better off than most of 'em."
This marked only the beginning of the hard times for America, as WWII was about to strike the States.
The U.S. had been trying to remain neutral despite the fighting happening around the world. However, in July of 1939, German soldiers hit American merchant ships, causing the U.S. to take action. In September of 1940, Congress passed the Armed Forces Conscript Bill. This allowed the U.S. to set aside money to activate the military. Opposing countries could see that the U.S. may become a threat, so the Japanese decided to take action themselves. On Dec. 7, 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, completely destroying the U.S.’ entire Pacific fleet.
Urias remembers hearing about the attack.
"We just heard that Sunday morning that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor, and we didn't even know where Pearl Harbor was," he said.
Even though he wasn't familiar with Pearl Harbor, he didn't care. "We were all motivated -- wanting to go and fight for our country."
Urias wouldn't have long to wait; on December 8, the U.S. and Britain declared war on the Japanese. Uncle Sam drafted him in November of 1943; then he was inducted into the Army at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas, and sent to Camp Glendon in Florida for basic training.
The training consisted of bayonet practice, crawling under barbed wire and maneuvering through a series of obstacle courses.
"I think we spent about 13 weeks of infantry training," Urias said. "We were pretty lucky. Some men didn't get much training."
After weeks of preparation, the officers decided to hold back the boys who weren’t quite 19 as long as possible. Instead of going straight to war, Urias, who was only 18 at the time, was transferred to K Company, 424 Regiment in the106th Infantry Division at Camp Adleberry in Indiana. This detour didn't last long, however, as Urias, along with about 12,000 others in his Division, made their first move in October of 1943, boarding the Aquatania ocean liner and making the long journey across the Atlantic. The conditions on the boat were terrible.
"They fed us sauerkraut for breakfast," Urias said. "It didn't stand too good on our stomachs. We got sea sick and we made it on candy bars."
Once on land, the 106th Division posted up in Glascow to engage in more training. This time, training only lasted for a month. Then in December, the troops made their way to France.
"It was during the winter and it was cold. Our truck broke down so we got separated from our company. We had about 10 inches of snow. Never had seen snow like that," Urias said.
After arriving in France, he discovered that the 106th Division had received orders to relieve the 2d Infantry Division.
"They had been on assignment there for a while. They had built bunkers with some bricks and logs, so they were pretty well protected there," Urias said.
It was time for him to face the war head on. Armed with a Browning Automatic Rifle (B*A*R), he made his way to the front lines.
"We had been there about 4 days, and on December 16 of '43, that's when the Germans made that push," Urias recalled. "That was known as the Battle of the Bulge."
The battle was quite a blow to the 106th Division.
"Two of our regiments got hit pretty hard," Urias said. "Most of them got captured but mine went on to the 4th week. We managed to get out of there and retreat to the rear."
The energy of the day, although intense, was far different from that of night. After sundown, the troops would move back about 100 yards from the designated front lines.
"We'd go back at night because we know we didn't want to get surrounded," he said.
Although the American troops were fairly well armed, they were no match for the enemy.
"They were pretty superior in arms. They had machine gun fire a whole lot faster than ours -- about twice as fast. We'd hit them with our 75 millimeters and they'd just bounce off of 'em," he said.
After weeks at the front lines, the 2nd Armor Division relieved Urias and his troops. It was at this point that the Germans captured him. With backup holding strong at the front lines, a few men from the 106th were given orders to capture some German soldiers and interrogate them.
"We went behind their lines but were stopped by machine gun power. We tried a different route and the same thing. Instead of capturing them, they got us. Finally our leader surrendered." Urias said.
He clearly remembered the moment he knew he was about to be taken captive by the Germans.
"They were wearing white capes that blended in with the snow. We couldn't tell where they were," he said. "They took our rifles and stuff -- some rings and watches and even our snow shoes."
The German soldiers shuffled the men to Gerolstein.
"They took us to a castle about 4 to 5 miles from the front lines," Urias said. "We were half scared."
The soldiers spent both day and night for about two weeks interrogating the American troops. Lack of response meant maltreatment. Once again, Urias suffered poor eating conditions.
"They didn't hardly feed us anything at all, maybe a slice of bread and sometimes muddy soup," he said. "At first I didn't much like it, but after about the 3rd day, I started sipping on it."
This stint in Gerolstein lasted only about two weeks. Urias and his fellow men were then transported to Limburg. Here, the conditions were much the same: Urias was fed only once a day around noon.
"I remember when we were marching towards the camp, I swapped my knit sweater for about a half a loaf of bread and a jar of marmalade jelly," he recalled.
Urias stayed in Limburg until the 29th of March, until liberated by the 6th Armor Division. The men were put on a train leaving their German prisons, at which point Urias met captives who’d suffered far worse than he.
"I remember that they had some Polish prisoners that had been there for like 4 or 5 years," Urias said.
There was a problem with the rescue, however. The captives were put on a German train, and, from the sky, American soldiers couldn’t tell whose men were aboard.
"As soon as it got daylight, we got strifed by our own fighters because they didn't know we’re in there," he said. Luckily, no one was seriously injured and the train moved safely on.
Urias was taken to a field hospital in Paris, France, to recover from the malnutrition. He weighed 190 when entering the war.
"I lost about 50 lbs.," he said. "I weighed myself in Paris at the General Hospital and I weighed about 140."
He spent about two weeks in the hospital, getting plenty of rest and quite a few shots of whiskey.
Not long after, Urias found out the war had come to an end, and was released to return to his country.
"I can't remember the ship we came back in. I remember we got back to the States on May the 5th, that's Mexican Independence Day," Urias said. "We were sailing right by the Statue of Liberty. It was beautiful."
Mr. Urias was interviewed in Fort Worth, Texas, on March 10, 2001, by Kevin and Sharon Bales.