Remembering The Life Lessons My Father Shared
by U.S. Army David San Miguel, Engineering and Support
September 9, 2019
It’s been eight years since my father passed, and despite the
years, my memory of him and the life lessons he shared have never
Born during a period of poverty and conflict, he
shared with me his strong work ethic, an uncompromising dedication
to family, and a love of country, humility and service.
G. San Miguel was a great man!
Fifty years after World
War II, Maj. Gen. Ralph O. Doughty, former commanding
general of the 90th U.S. Army Reserve Command, presented the
Bronze Star to my father, Sgt. Joe G. San Miguel, at a
ceremony in San Antonio on June 6, 1992 only a day after
his 71st birthday. (Courtesy photo by U.S. Army David San Miguel)
During my youth, I loved sitting on the front porch, especially
following a good rain, listening to him tell stories of growing up
in Charco, a sparsely populated cattle ranch and cotton-growing
community in southeast Texas. Not much of a town, it boasted a
population of 150 during its heyday and consisted of a post office,
a gristmill, two blacksmiths, three general stores, several
churches, a one-room schoolhouse and, until the boll weevil killed
the area’s cotton crop, two cotton gins.
Born in the summer
of 1921, it was here that my father learned all too soon the
realities of growing up dirt poor and having to provide for his
mother and younger siblings.
was the Great Depression, and adding to the crisis were the dust
storms that devastated much of the Great Plains region, leaving huge
farm populations poverty stricken and in search of jobs.
Bread lines, soup kitchens and homelessness were commonplace; and
for minorities, times were even tougher. Racial discrimination was
widespread, and they were often blamed for taking jobs and siphoning
government relief funds.
The U.S. census of the time
reflected the nation’s sentiments - more than a million families of
Mexican descent were deported or repatriated, largely through
systematic intimidation or harassment. It would be the largest mass
removal effort ever promulgated by the U.S. government despite the
fact that upwards of 40 percent of them were American citizens.
This may have explained my grandfather’s exodus from the states.
And perhaps, this too may have been why my father never spoke ill or
held a grudge against him.
Still, it was not for another ten
plus years that my grandfather did eventually return. The
separation, however, was more than their relationship could sustain
and my grandparents divorced.
He would never reintegrate
into the family, much less contribute to my father’s upbringing.
It was during this period that my father entered the workforce
at just barely 11 years old.
“After your grandfather left, my
mother had little choice but to pull me out of school and send me
out to the field to work,” my father told me. “It was hard. We
didn’t have much, and if we did go to school we went barefoot and
hungry. But then times were tough all around. Everyone did what they
had to do just to survive; and being the oldest, I had to support
He worked the fields from sun up to sun down,
and by day’s end, there was little time to play. Exhausted and
drained, my father would slump on a makeshift bed on the floor,
hands scarred and bleeding from picking cotton. Other days, he’d sit
on the porch, massaging his aches after laboring all day picking
tomatoes, strawberries or hoeing the fields.
“I did what I
had to do,” my father would say. “What else could I do?”
dedication to the family was again tested when the nation entered
World War II after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, and he was
drafted into the Army.
Without hesitation, Joe, the family
provider, reported for duty and for the next three years served with
Lima Company, 128th Infantry, 32nd Infantry Division, a
Wisconsin-Michigan National Guard outfit, as a “grunt” infantryman
island hopping and fighting Japanese soldiers in the hot, humid,
mosquito-infested swamps and jungles of New Guinea, Luzon, Palau,
Leyte and the Philippines.
Ill-equipped and inexperienced,
his unit encountered a well-trained, battle-tested enemy all the
while suffering through malaria, dengue fever, dysentery, athlete’s
foot, ringworm and other tropical diseases.
challenges, my father’s success on the battlefield earned him
sergeant’s stripes and a squad leader appointment. It had seemed the
hardships of his youth had tempered him for the harsh jungle
climate; and though he didn’t like to tell stories about his wartime
service, he did share with me an incident while out on patrol.
Spying a group of Japanese soldiers resting along the river
bank, my father signaled his men to surround, then ambush the
unsuspecting enemy. The attack was so swift that the soldiers didn’t
have time to respond, and so they surrendered.
It was not
until during the interrogation process that he learned how
significant this capture was. One of the prisoners was a much
valued, high-ranking general of the Japanese Imperial Guard. It was
That general’s saber is now on permanent loan to a
veterans’ museum in Goliad, Texas.
“Leadership wanted to
promote me to platoon sergeant,” he said, “but I refused. I didn’t
want to be responsible for sending my men out to get killed. There
is no worse feeling than having a Soldier die under your watch.”
That decision, he said was influenced by one particular mission
when his unit was ambushed and suffered heavy losses.
fact that we were hit wasn’t unusual,” he said. “This was just too
close, too brutal. The enemy was trampling through the brush and
firing their weapons at whatever moved. They weren’t taking any
prisoners. We could hear and feel each bullet whiz past and strike
the ground and brush to our right and left. There was no way getting
around it. I didn’t think we’d make it out alive.”
encounter forever changed his view of leadership and the inherit
responsibility of bringing his men home to their families.
bullet grazed my cheek and I could hear the thump as it hit my buddy
behind me. It hit him solid in the chest,” he said. “He fell
directly on top of me. I will never forget the look on his face as
he took his last final breath. I hid beneath him staring at his face
until the Japs left. It felt like hours.”
At nightfall, my
father said he mustered all the strength to carry his buddy back
inside the perimeter where he joined the handful of Soldiers that
made it back.
“There was nothing more I could do,” he said.
“He was dead. I couldn’t get the look on his face out of my mind. It
still haunts me. All I could think about were his wife and kids.”
From then on, my father vowed never to take on any mission
he couldn’t go alone.
“I figured I didn’t have much to lose.
I was single,” he said. “I didn’t have a wife and kids, and I had
plenty of siblings to take care of my mom back home. Besides, I was
tough. I could take the heat and move through the jungles faster.”
Once victory in the Pacific was declared, his unit quietly
returned to port in California – no ticker tape parade, bands or
celebration. It was November 1945. Victory in Europe (V-E Day) was
achieved on May 8, and Victory over Japan (V-J Day) on August 14. By
the time the last remaining units returned, celebrations had long
“I was just glad it was over. We got off the
ships and loaded onto trains… and went home,” he said. “And that was
Eight years after the war, my father married the young
girl he met more than a decade earlier while picking tomatoes in the
fields in Indiana. That relationship would last 58 years until his
death on April 20, 2011.
Though he earned it the hard way, my
father often said that it was the Army that helped him get a
respectable job at Kelly Air Force Base in San Antonio, and a home
to raise his family.
“I didn’t have to work in the fields
anymore,” he said. “It was a hard job – cleaning jet engine parts –
but at least I could provide for my wife and kids.”
years later, Maj. Gen. Ralph O. Doughty, former commanding general
of the 90th U.S. Army Reserve Command, presented the Bronze Star to
my father at a ceremony in San Antonio on June 6, 1992, only a day
after his 71st birthday.
“It was about time,” my father said
following the presentation. “But I was only doing my duty. I did
what I had to do.”
Afterward, neighbors and strangers alike
would stop to thank him for his service. Many of them hadn’t even
realized my father served in the Army, much less fought in World War
Humbled by their outpouring of praise and support, he’d
smile and humbly say he only did what he had to do.
legacy is my children, he’d say. “Though, I never finished school, I
did provide for the family. They got to experience a childhood I
never had. They’ve made something of their lives. I’m proud. What
better way to live your life than to make it better for our
children. Bueno, bueno!”
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