By Casey Zertuche
For 72-year-old Thomas Armendariz, it was difficult to conjure up memories of World War II, though he does recall being assigned to a unit that included many Mexican Americans.
"I wasn't a volunteer. I was drafted," Armendariz said.
Induction into the Army in San Antonio was followed by basic training then assignment to Greenland for two months.
"I was too cold and I wanted to transfer to Salerno because I wanted to join the 36th Infantry Division," said Armendariz, who was born and raised in considerably warmer Texas.
Eventually, Armendariz joined other Latino soldiers of the 36th Infantry Division in Salerno as a member of Company E, the all-Chicano company. This company was distinct, comprised of all Spanish-speaking soldiers. It was in the early days of 1941 that Company E had become an entirely Mexican American unit. E Company was at full strength because it had many seasoned soldiers who’d trained prior to entering the war.
The most memorable accomplishment of the infantry unit was the crossing of the Rapido River in the Cassino Valley in central Italy on Jan. 20, 1943. The Rapido River was known for its turbulent waves and served as a natural barrier that held up the Allied drive.
Fifth Army Commander General Mark Clark needed to attack to put the Germans on the defensive, so Company E was given the responsibility of crossing the river. Armendariz and the other soldiers of Company E were successful.
"We regrouped the division to Naples because we were wiped out at Rapido," Armendariz said. "Then we retreated and fought.''
His unit fought up through Italy, assaulted Anzio, took Rome and, on August 15, 1944, assaulted Southern France. They fought across France into Germany and ended the war in Austria.
Armendariz also recalls fighting alongside an officer in the group, Captain Gabriel Navarette, who was considered for the Congressional Medal of Honor.
"There was a misunderstanding with the lieutenant," Armendariz said.
Navarette was wounded seven times and received other honors, but not the Congressional Medal of Honor because he told a commanding officer it would be impossible to cross the river without heavy casualties.
"It was unfair to me," Armendariz said. "He was the best [leader]."
Armendariz received a Purple Heart Medal and a Good Conduct Medal.
At 72, Armendariz has made his mark in history, not only with his own service to his country, but with his family's role.
His son, Thomas Armendariz, Jr., served in Vietnam and now resides in Corpus Christi, Texas. Thomas Jr. was wounded twice, and, like his father, earned a Purple Heart. Armendariz's grandson-in-law was a Marine in Desert Storm.
Mr. Armendariz was interviewed in East Chicago, Ind., on November 25, 1993, by William Luna.