Conception Morón of Beeville weeps as he recalls a day 65 years ago when as a young man fighting in Nazi-occupied Europe he entered a barn alone only to find blood dripping from the hayloft above and subdued voices coming from the basement below.
He figured it to be enemy soldiers.
Conception pulled his sidearm with one hand and a grenade off his belt with the other.
“I pulled the pin on the grenade and yelled, ‘Comenzie here, schnell,’ — come out, now! in German,” he recalled. “I was ready to throw the grenade. If they were going to kill me, I was going to kill them, too.”
Instead, 10 to 12 people walked out, including an elderly woman, some children and some infants.
“I still have nightmares about that day,” he said, his eyes brimming with tears as he recalled how he nearly killed an innocent family and himself.
Conception, known as Chon to friends and family, shared his war experiences with researchers from the University of Texas on Saturday.
The one-time Army rifleman was among nine Bee County Latinos who are veterans of World War II and who were invited to document their contributions to one of the greatest conflicts in human history.
“Many of these guys were born and raised in America and some came to America from Mexico but they considered this their country, but these guys couldn’t take advantage of everything this country had to offer because of the color of their skin,” said Raquel Garza, project manager for the U.S. Latino-Latina WWII Oral History Project sponsored by the University of Texas.
“They couldn’t eat in the same restaurants with whites. They couldn’t go to the same school as whites, yet when the war came they were among the first in line to sign up. They wanted to serve their country and they did so proudly.”
Sadly, she noted, Latino veterans who survived the war were rarely recognized for their contributions to the war effort.
“Their contributions were overlooked,” she said. “They fought alongside whites and many Latino soldiers died, but they never got the recognition the Anglo soldiers received after the war.”
Dr. Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez, an assistant journalism professor at the University of Texas and a former reporter, decided to document the untold stories of survival and heroism of the country’s Latino veterans in 1999.
Garza said UT researchers have conducted interviews with 650 Latinos over the past eight years, on videotape and in writing.
“It’s important that we get their accounts while we can,” she explained.
Rudy Garcia, president of the Bee County Historical Society, helped arrange interviews with nine Latino veterans from Bee County. The interviews took place Saturday at A.C. Jones High School.
DVDs of the veterans’ stories will be housed at the Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection at the University of Texas-Austin, as well as the Center for American History at the Austin campus.
He said the veterans also will receive a copy of the interviews for their own family files, and the local historical society is supposed to get copies for its files.
“The purpose of the whole thing is to give recognition to these vets that is well-deserved and long overdue,” he said. “A lot of people don’t realize that these Hispanics contributed a lot to the war. They had to do what they did for their country but when they came back they were not treated equally. They told me about times when they were in full uniform and they would go into restaurants and they would not be served, or they could eat but they would have to eat in back.”
He said many if not most Hispanic or Latino veterans struggled to find good-paying jobs when they returned from the war.
Garza said the nine Latinos who were interviewed Saturday are only the first group of WWII veterans from Bee County to share their memories of the great conflict.
“We would like to interview every Hispanic veteran of WWII but we have to start small,” he said. “We’re starting with this group but we’ll eventually schedule interviews for the others we can locate.”
Also interviewed Saturday were Martin Sanchez, Alex Garza, Clemente Ramon, Derlin Loya, Joe Henry Lazarine, Jose S. Sanchez, Lupe Loya and Tomas Treviño.
Frank Morón, Conception’s son, said Hollywood also overlooked the contributions of Latinos during the second world war.
“As a child, I would watch every war movie that would come out, and there would either be no mention of a Latino in it or if he appeared, he appeared as a messenger or as a very minor role, and in fact, most of the times he was probably killed in the next frame,” Morón said. “I could never understand why Latinos were not given the recognition they deserved.”
Hispanics’ contributions were even being overlooked in recent years, he noted.
A 2007 documentary on WWII by historian Ken Burns originally failed to include any accounts of Latinos, which angered many Americans of Mexican descent, Morón said.
Frank’s father, Conception, said he didn’t have time after WWII to worry about documenting his role in ending Adolf Hitler’s quest for world domination.
“I had seven kids to feed,” said Conception, 83, who was drafted by the Army in the fall of 1944. “I didn’t even want to think about the war.”