Served with pride
It was June 1944.
Troops stormed the beaches of Normandy, France, and American armed forces were about to gain the momentum needed to push German forces back in a fight that would help end World War II.
For Belen resident Herman Sanchez, that month was a time when he reported for duty at the military base in Ft. Bliss, Texas, which would soon lead to a tour in the infantry division of the U.S. Army.
After 15 days, Sanchez went to Oregon for a brief time before he was shipped off to New Guinea, where he was the assistant squad leader in combat.
He said the area was filled with dark jungles where the enemy could be lurking around any corner.
Sanchez, now 87, said he was there for one reason.
“(We were there) to look for the Japanese,” Sanchez said.
One night, Sanchez remembers, his unit had to pretend they were dead to get the enemy of Japanese soldiers to stop their attack.
After three months, Sanchez was deployed to the Philippines, where the combat was just as intense. He said he was standing next to a fellow soldier during a gun fight that ended in death.
“I told him to squat down, and they shot him,” Sanchez said. “It was a friend of mine — he died.”
Sanchez was drafted into the Army and didn’t think twice about why he was launched into battle. But he said there were also times when he and his 41st Division of the U.S. Army had some good times along the way.
Soldiers got a visit from comedians Bob Hope and Jack Benny, who both did separate performances during the war.
He often wrote his mother, but was not allowed to give family members his specific whereabouts due to security reasons. Back then, soldiers used Victory Mail, a mail service that expedited mail for American service men. He said family members would receive his messages after a few weeks.
Evelyn Sanchez, his niece, said she saw some of the letters her uncle wrote to his family.
“He wrote them in a way where he didn’t want (his mother) to worry,” she said.
The Belen native keeps a scrapbook full of black and white pictures from the time when he was a 19-year-old man. The pictures show Sanchez and other soldiers horsing around with wide smiles on their faces during times when they weren’t in combat.
One of Sanchez’s pictures shows a stage in the Philippines with several tents in the background where the soldiers slept on the beach.
Sanchez was overseas from 1944 until about six months after the war ended in 1945. His unit was assigned to occupy Japan once the war was over.
He said most of the towns they visited were deserted and the people who remained were afraid that the Americans were there to kill them.
The journey to get home was long — 14 days by ship to get back from Japan to the states.
He said it took “a few days” to get over the stress of the war.
“I got (to be) alright,” Sanchez said.
These days, Sanchez could be considered a man of few words. But that doesn’t diminish his pride.
He proudly wears his World War II hat and is grateful for the people who come up to him and thank him for his service while he is out and about in Valencia County.
These days, Sanchez said he doesn’t often make it out to Veteran’s Day events like he used to in the past.
But he said he doesn’t agree with the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“They shouldn’t be out there,” Sanchez said. “They are getting killed every day.”
But Sanchez said he is proud of his service and he believed in what he was doing for his country during World War II.
Over the summer, his niece made a few calls to help her uncle get wartime medals he earned for serving. He told Evelyn he thought he deserved the Philippine Liberation Ribbon and Bronze Star. The Bronze Star is awarded for acts of heroism and acts of merit while in a combat zone.
Along with those medals, Sanchez received four others for his service that he wasn’t expecting. The medals are in a display case that sit on top of his mantel over his fireplace in his Belen home.
“It was awesome,” his niece said. “He didn’t know he was going to get all of these other medals.”
She said her uncle shows pride when he talks about the war and gets sentimental when holidays such as Veteran’s Day approach each year.
Evelyn said she sees a different side of her uncle when he talks about his time overseas.
Sanchez seems humble about his experiences and said he was just doing his duty.
“I was just serving my country — that’s all,” he says.
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