By Elliott Blackburn
For Raul de la Garza, the cratered landscape was a constant reminder of just how close the battlefield was. De La Garza remembers one particular evening when he and fellow soldiers were laying communications wire. The unit decided to spend the night in an abandoned house.
After catching up with the main body of the division the next morning, De La Garza said his communications section of his artillery unit marched back through the area where they had sought shelter the night before.
The house where they had slept had been leveled to the ground.
De La Garza does not like talking about his experiences in World War II. Close calls like the leveled farmhouse remind him how lucky he was to escape with his life.
He had left the farmlands of South Texas for the countryside of Europe where he served with the Field Artillery Battalion of the Division Artillery of the 76th Infantry Division. His unit crisscrossed France, Belgium and Germany during the last months of the war.
De La Garza made his entry into the war with the 76th just after the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium in January 1945. He said he worked as a field lineman during what was described as one of the bitterest winters the region has seen.
De La Garza traveled with the infantry, maintaining the communication lines that connected "forward observers," who acted as spotters for the artillery forces. The spotters would help set targets for the artillery units.
Setting the wire was dangerous work, he said. The Germans would cut the lines to disrupt Allied artillery efforts. Linemen often found mines and snipers waiting for them as they worked to set up and repair communications, according to De La Garza.
"The Germans would always pick a bare spot and cut the wire," he said. "We got wise that they were going to [shoot] us."
The linemen had to take long detours around the break to avoid sniper fire and repair the line, he said. Without communications, the artillery units would be blind, and the infantry left without support.
Working on the communications line had other risks as well, De La Garza said.
The 76th had several visits from General George S. Patton, who was in command of the Third Army. Garza remembers injuring his ankle in a fall from a telephone pole. He said he later found himself awkwardly explaining to Gen. Patton why he wasn't wearing combat boots.
"I was wearing regular shoes that I had picked up in one of the German shops," he said. Doctors who had treated his ankle had cleared the footwear. He said Gen. Patton was satisfied with the explanation after checking papers from the battalion doctor.
Born in Cotulla, Texas, about 110 miles south of San Antonio, De La Garza was raised by his grandparents after his mother and father passed away.
"I have no recollection of my parents whatsoever," he said. "I was raised in a house full of uncles and aunts."
De La Garza grew up in Los Angelos, Texas. After dropping out of school in the third grade, he began doing fieldwork with his uncles and grandfather. He labored on the farmlands of South Texas and drove cattle trucks from Los Angelos to the markets in San Antonio.
"We either worked, or we didn't have shoes to wear," De La Garza recalled.
At 19, De La Garza was drafted in 1943. He was sent to Fort Sill in Oklahoma for basic training. He took advanced artillery training at Camp McCoy in Wisconsin.
De La Garza was shipped to England arriving on Dec. 20, 1944. After a few days layover in England, his 76th Infantry Division crossed English Channel to France, arriving on Jan. 12, 1945..
The group saw immediate combat trying to cross a river from Eckerneck into Germany. "You're too young to realize the danger you're in," Mr. De La Garza said. "But we survived."
After the war drew to a close in Europe, he was shipped to Camp Kelly outside Marseilles France. For weeks, he wondered if he would be sent to fight in the South Pacific.
"All I wanted to do was to come back to tortillas and chile," Mr. De La Garza said.
Delays kept him in France until the war in the Pacific ended. He was shipped home in late 1945. After being processed in San Antonio, he said he and army buddies celebrated with a steak dinner, real milk and Lone Star beer.
De La Garza returned to Cotulla, lived there a year and then became a migrant worker. He traveled as far north as North Dakota, Minnesota and Ohio for factory jobs before settling down in Chicago.
He has lived in Chicago for nearly 60 years.
De La Garza attended a music school on the GI Bill and worked to pay for barber school on his own. He was a barber for 30 years, and is now retired.
Since the war, De La Garza has been an active volunteer in his community. He is a top fundraiser for his Lions Club and was the charter president for the Mexican Golf Association. De La Garza volunteers once a year at a trolley museum in Ft. Smith, Arkansas.
While he keeps up with his fellow WWII veterans, De La Garza said it is a period of his life that doesn't like to dwell on.
"It is a part of my life I'd like to forget because I had nothing but bad memories in the war," he said. "Those are not pleasant days, pleasant moments for me to remember."
Garza, 78, lives in Chicago with his wife, Emily. He has six children and numerous grand- and great-grandchildren.
( Mr. Garza was interviewed at his home in Chicago on August 13, 2002 by Bill Luna.)