Los Dias de los Muertos – The Days of the Dead

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We are in the autumn of the year. Another year falling down to die in December. We roll past All Saints and All Souls, remembering Heaven and Purgatory, the days of the dead, los Dias de los Muertos, as we say in Spanish.

Autumn is like that, bringing remembrances of the dead. But memory is strange. Instead of dying, memories come to life, more real than the people and events from which they spring. My memories are of the Vietnam War, rapidly receding into the distant past, and of the soldiers who populate those memories. Soldiers appear, stand and speak. They come to petition, to ask for my favor.

Sometimes I cannot answer them. They are too insistent, wanting to hold me accountable lest I forget them. The dead of the Vietnam War, like the dead of all wars, wish only to be remembered. But the Vietnam dead have a special poignancy about them. They do not want to be consigned to the gray world of shameful memories, even if their war is often perceived that way.

So I am patient with them. And I am patient with myself. Before I had Vietnam memories, I had other memories, the World War II stories that I heard growing up. I came home from the Vietnam War in 1968, in the autumn of the year. I came home to south Texas. I was a combat veteran, home from the war, but yet not home, unable to return to the civilian world, as combat veterans often cannot.

But it was a good homecoming. My uncle was there to greet me. He was an old soldier. He had landed with the Second Infantry Division on D+1, June 7, 1944. Reynaldo V. Zuniga, that was my uncle’s name. When I think of my war I always think of him. I remember the stories he would tell.

My uncle would sit with his cronies, among them another combat veteran named Ray Hernandez, who had been with the 36th Division, the Texas National Guard outfit savagely mauled by the Germans at the Gari river in Italy and finally at Monte Cassino. There was another man, a small, quiet, dark-skinned man. This man’s name was Jose Lopez. He would come to visit relatives in Brownsville, then stop to visit my uncle before returning to San Antonio. They had been in the same regiment during the war, Jose Lopez in M Company.

In December 1944 he killed 132 Germans in and around the Belgian village of Krinkeldt. He shot them down with his .30 caliber machine gun. He was alone. His comrades had fled in the face of the German onslaught. For that action during the Battle of the Bulge Jose Lopez won the Medal of Honor.

The stories would usually start on D-Day. That was my uncle’s glory. He jumped off the ramp of the LCI, into water that nearly covered his head. “I held up the man next to me,” he would say. “I’m six feet-two, so I saved him from drowning. And the Germans were still shooting at us.”

He was seventeen when he ran away from home in 1940 together with his best friend, Ernesto Vela. The boys hitchhiked to San Antonio and joined the Army’s Second Infantry Division, the famous Indian Head division. The profile of the stoical Indian warrior is the proud insignia of the Second Division, a fitting symbol for the many south Texas Mexican Americans who fought, bled and died in that combat division in World War II.

Ernesto was killed in Normandy. He lies in the American cemetery at Colville-sur-Mer, overlooking Bloody Omaha, the beach where so many men died. My uncle still talked about him many years later, and I would listen, listen so much that I felt that I knew Ernesto, that he was my comrade, too.

He was rapidly promoted and was very soon an NCO, the platoon sergeant, even if he was a hard drinker and a hard brawler, ready with his fists and even more ready with his sarcasm. But he had leadership qualities. I remember that he was a natural leader and I certainly wanted to follow him.

My uncle lasted three months in combat. He was wounded three times. The last wound was almost fatal. It was in September, 1944. The U.S. Second Infantry Division was now part of Patton’s newly activated Third Army, tasked with clearing the Germans out of the Brittany peninsula and liberating the port city of Brest.

Reynaldo Zuniga was a platoon sergeant in I Company, 3rd Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment. He led from the front, always from the front. He was that kind of man. He ran out in front of his men, and I can hear him shout, “follow me!” It was at the siege of Brest.

Then he was shot. A German soldier hiding behind a wall shot him with a K98 Mauser rifle, the 7.92 mm  slug shattering his pelvis. He lay on the ground, “and the blood was pouring out of me like water from a faucet,” he would say. The platoon medic ran out, oblivious to danger, slapped a pressure bandage on him and pulled him to safety. “The Germans were so close that I could hear them talking, but they didn’t shoot the medic and they didn’t shoot me again.” I can still hear him say that, paying a grudging compliment to the enemy who had nearly killed him but then chose to spare him.

On Veterans’ Day I drank a toast to him. I went to my war because I wanted to be like him. But of course I never could ascend to that lofty height. We old soldiers continue to fight our wars. It’s a type of relief to tell stories, especially among the bands of brothers found in every VFW and American Legion post across the land.  I have done that, and gone on pilgrimages looking for solace.

When I visited the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington – The Wall – I tried to put mine to rest. I touched the names of comrades engraved there. It’s a powerful experience and it’s no accident that the Memorial to the Vietnam War dead is a wall – we, the survivors – are still trying to go through our own wall. We want to finish our war and reunite with our comrades. It’s tragic that so many Vietnam veterans cannot do that.

When I went to the Wall I think that I succeeded, at least to a small degree, in putting my war to rest. Touching their names gave me a fleeting connection to those long-dead comrades.

But there was another bond that I found there. It made me feel another strong emotion. The Wall has one unique feature that I immediately noticed. No where else, on no other American monument, civilian or military, are there so many Spanish surnames. On every panel there are Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Central American names. Thousands of them.

The Vietnam War Memorial is an ironic testament to affirmative action. That Roll of Honor is the only place where our country gives Latinos the recognition we so richly deserve – because it was paid for in blood.

~Joe Barrera,
Publisher/Editor
The Almagre Review

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