A Mexican American Hero Story

VETERAN: ‘We Were there.’

World War II for a Garden Grove man meant fighting from foxholes and seeing men die.

Jess Saenz is already looking forward to the Colonia Indpendencia reunion. He’ll get to see the friends he grew up within the 1930s and ’40s in the small but historic Mexican American community. The event will raise funds for a plaque to honor World War II veterans who, like Saenz, were drafted out of this Incorporated area neat Anaheim, California.

“It is important because a lot of people do not think we were there. Says the 84 year-old-Saenz. But they were. Fifty-young men from the Colonia received draft notices and went on to join the hundreds of thousands of Hispanics fighting on front lines. Saenz was 19 and had just graduated from Anaheim High School when he received his letter in 1943.

After completing training at Fort Benning Ga., he shipped out aboard the Queen Elizabeth to Italy, where he was to fight as part of the Army’s Special Services Company C as a rifleman soon after he found himself in as of the infantry.

“They put us in the infantry right away, being Latinos, half were white.”

On The Line

For a year and two months, Saenz experienced combat. He fought against the Germans in the Ardennes of France. Saenz remembers months of lying down in foxholes – days at a time, withstanding the cold winter nights, sometimes waring trench coats that did nothing to keep the soldiers from getting soaked when it rained. He remembers months of playing brave, holding his rifle tight, his 45-caliber automatic pistol on his side a knife in his pocket. Saenz knew any moment could be his as he watched his comrades getting killed by the dozen during battle. “Sometimes I used to say, ‘I wish I were never born,” he says. Can you believe it? That’s what I used to say, can you believe it? That I was there.”

Finding Faith

 Jess Saenz remembers watching his buddies get mowed down by German machine guns and recalls thinking to himself, “That could have been me. Maybe the man up there is on my side.”

Then one day, in the middle of combat, a soldier announced he”d heard it on the radio: The war was over. Many threw their arms up in celebration, but Saenz. He was not about to let go of the rifle that his life depended on every moment. He was in shock. Once the realization came, Saenz, still holding on to his weapon, got down on his knees and kissed the German soil. “We had conquered them,” he says. The former soldier remembers seeing rubble where German towns like Frankfurt had stood before the U.S. warplanes bombed the area. With peace, his duties changed. He pumped fuel for a while. And he remembers he set up and run a nightclub for troops in Germany from November 1945 through May 1946. “The German people treated me very nice,” he says of his experience as a nightclub manager. “It was a beautiful country. It’s still a beautiful country.”

Lessons Learned

Although Saenz doesn’t agree with Wars, especially with the current conflict in Iraq, he whole-heartily served in World War II because he was sure that if the U.S. didn’t fight Germany, Hitler would invade the country. “I felt that it was my duty. You know being born in this country. He says, and although his combat experience was grueling, he says he’ll never forget his four years in the service and got to travel throughout Europe and meet a variety of . he thinks the war taught him to accept responsibility. “It made me more of a man,” he says.

Jess Saenz

Age: 84

Unit: 23rd Corps infantry

Residence: Garden Grove, California

Family: Wife Nellie; children Luci, Robert, Joanne, Elizabeth, five grandchildren, five great-grandchildren.

Occupation: Retired carpenter

Current activities: Member of the League of United Latin American Citizens, AARP, U.S. Army honor guard volunteer.

Quote: “I think there should be more peace in this World.”

Story by Luci Stoffer