THE HISPANIC EXPERIENCE
Hispanics in Military Service
Houston Institute for Culture
ERMINIO DOMINGUEZ: IN THE SERVICE OF HIS COUNTRY
By Donna S. Morales and John P. Schmal
Erminio Lujan Dominguez was born on May 19, 1922 in Turner, Kansas as the seventh of nine children of Geronimo Dominguez and Luisa Lujan, who were both immigrants from the Hacienda de Santa Monica in the municipio of Sain Alto in Zacatecas, Mexico. Erminio's parents had left Mexico in 1909 as the Mexican Republic was beginning its rapid descent into its bloody ten-year Mexican Revolution. Their first two children were born in Mexico, but the rest of their children were born in Canadian, Texas and Kansas City, Kansas.
As a young boy, Erminio accompanied his family to the beet fields of Nebraska, Colorado and Wyoming to do summer work. He also attended the Turner Grade School up until the Seventh Grade. Although the Dominguez family lived in a small Mexican community on a small hill in Turner, Kansas, the children had to attend a school in which they were forbidden from using the Spanish language that they spoke at home.
In the 1920s and 1930s, the teachers at the schools in the Kansas City area were very adamant about the use of the Spanish language in school. Believing that the use of Spanish at home might interfere with their English-language education, some teachers very strictly enforced these rules. These rules were similarly enforced at the Turner High School, which was attended by Erminio's two younger brothers, Marshall and Louie.
In 1939, a female teacher seemed to have a vendetta against the Dominguez family. Erminio's young brother Marshall was punished severely several times for speaking Spanish. Then, one day, some students stole erasers from the classroom and gave them to Marshall. When the erasers were discovered in Marshall's possession, he was beaten severely by the school madam. To this day, the family believes that this - and under beatings - led to Marshall's premature death at the age of 14 years and eight months from acute general nephritis on March 29, 1939.
Erminio's family exhibited great fortitude and endurance in times of sorrow and, through the tragedies and the Great Depression, the Dominguez family continued to make the best of their lives in the Kansas City area. So, when the Japanese Imperial Navy launched a surprise attack on the American naval fleet at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the Dominguez family exhibited the same concern that all American families felt.
Suddenly at war with three powerful foes - Germany, Italy, and Japan - the American people exhibited an uncompromising sense of confidence in eventual victory. Able-bodied men in every town of every state made painful decisions to leave their families behind to defend their nation in its time of need.
During the first two years of World War II, from September 1939 through December 1941, a series of startling military victories permitted German domination of the European continent. After the conquest of Poland in 1939, Adolph Hitler gave the order to invade other countries, even while professing his desire to make peace with Great Britain and France. Using Blitzkrieg (Lightning-war) tactics, the German military had overwhelmed and destroyed the armies of France, Poland, Norway, Yugoslavia, and Greece. In addition, Denmark, Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands had been occupied after short campaigns. Hitler had been able to achieve his conquests, partly through the help of his allies, Italy, Rumania, Hungary, and Bulgaria. In June 1941, Germany and her allies would invade the Soviet Union along a 2,000-mile front.
On September 2, 1942, during America's darkest hours, 20-year-old Erminio Dominguez enlisted in the armed forces. On December 11, 1942, he reported to duty and was officially inducted into the United States armed services at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. His first military assignment was with the Reconnaissance Section of the Cavalry School in Fort Riley, Kansas.
The Fort Riley Cavalry School had originally been established in 1893 as the "Cavalry and Light Artillery School." Entire units were usually sent to Fort Riley to receive training and special instructions in the cavalry techniques and tactics. Erminio's military emphasis, however, was military reconnaissance, which involved the inspection and study of the land to gather military information.
Before enlisting, Erminio had been a truck driver for the Santa Fe Freight House in Kansas City, Missouri for more than a year. After finishing his basic cavalry training at Fort Riley, Erminio was promoted to Private First Class (Pfc.) and took on new duties as a truck driver. In this capacity, he operated, serviced and made minor repairs on various army vehicles, both in the United States and overseas in combat. As an overseas combat soldier, Erminio also became a skilled marksman and specialized in the service and use of military weapons, in particular .45 caliber Thompson sub-machine guns.
During 1943, Erminio was given his first overseas assignment with the 117th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron (Mechanized). But it was not until 1944 that Erminio would see major action. In April 1944, the 117th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron was assigned to the 5th Army of General Mark Clark, which was making its way up the Italian Peninsula, against stiff German resistance. With its new assignment at the battlefront, the 117th Squadron was ordered by General Clark to embark for Naples, where it landed on May 16, 1944.
On May 22, the 117th went into action at Itri and Sperlonga, both of which were located almost one hundred miles south of Rome. Almost two weeks later on June 2, Erminio would be wounded in action. On June 23, 1944, the Army awarded him with the Purple Heart for this wound. Erminio, however, would be still be able to take part in the liberation of Rome.
The battle for the liberation of Rome was a long and protracted struggle. The Germans had first occupied the famous city in September 1943. Next, they constructed three major defensive lines across the Italian Peninsula in the hope of slowing the Allied advance northward. These defensive moves were very effective in halting Allied attacks and led to some of the fiercest battles of the entire war.
By the beginning of June, however, the German commanders realized that they would have to evacuate Rome in order to make an orderly retreat northward. Allied air forces dropped propaganda leaflets, which urged the Romans "to stand shoulder-to-shoulder to protect the city from destruction and to defeat our common enemies." Even though the retreating Germans had declared Rome to be an open city, the citizens of Rome were urged to do everything possible to protect public services, transportation facilities, and communications.
When American forces arrived on the outskirts of Rome on June 4, 1944, they encountered only scattered German resistance. On this day, advance patrols of the 3rd Division had reached the outer limits of Rome. By the morning of June 5th, all elements on the 117th had made their way into Rome. In a mere twelve days, the 117th Squadron had advanced almost 161 kilometers (100 miles). Erminio - despite his wound - was able to accompany his unit into the Eternal City.
Most of the citizens of Rome had remained indoors as instructed, but on the following day, June 5, 1944, throngs of ecstatic Italians spilled into the streets to welcome the Americans as the main elements of the Fifth Army moved north through the city on their way to the next battlefront. Delirious with joy and happiness, millions of Italians welcomed the liberators with great fanfare. Italians throughout Rome climbed onto American tanks and armored cars to greet the soldiers.
Reflecting on the reception that the American soldiers received from the Romans, the 117th Squadron historian Colonel Harold J. Samsel wrote, "All the hardships and loneliness of a soldier seemed well worth whatever sacrifices have been made. The Italian people suffered badly under the Germans. To see the extreme happiness on their faces as we liberated their lands made one proud to be wearing an American Uniform. Without a doubt, we all gained great moral strength and justification for our cause."
After the fall of Rome, the 117th Regiment was ordered to continue its journey northward. However, according to Colonel Samsel, "the remainder of June saw the 117th engaged in heavy fighting north of Rome, in almost constant contact with the enemy." Colonel Samsel explains that "fire fights were frequent and deadly, artillery fire was heavy, and the German anti-tank guns and mines took their toll. Casualties were high, for the enemy was making the Fifth Army fight for every foot of ground it gave up."
On June 29, 1944, the 117th Reconnaissance Squadron was relieved of its mission on the Italian front and reassigned to the VI Corps as part of the 7th Army's "Operation Anvil" (the Allied amphibious invasion of Southern France). Earlier in the month, Allied forces had landed on the shores of Normandy in northwestern France, but after some initial successes, it appeared that the Allied forces were pinned down by strong German resistance. Some military planners believed that an invasion of Southern France might cause the Germans to divert some of their forces south, thus giving the Allied forces in Normandy some breathing room.
On August 14, 1944, the invasion convoy set sail and on August 15th, the Allied forces made a successful landing in Southern France between Toulon and Cannes. Erminio Dominguez and the 117th Squadron were now reassigned as a reconnaissance element of "Task Force Butler," commanded by Brigadier General F. B. Butler. During August, Task Force Butler was ordered to cut off the retreat of the German 19th Army that was moving northward to escape the Allied onslaught. In four days, the 117th Squadron advanced 306 kilometers (190 miles) from the beachhead, liberating 6,645 square miles of French territory and capturing more than 2,500 prisoners.
On August 30, 1944, the 117th Squadron was relieved of its attachment to Task Force Butler and reattached to the VI Corps. They were now 442 kilometers (275 miles) from their original beachhead on the shores of the Mediterranean. The Squadron had successfully harassed the German 19th Army as it retreated toward Germany. In the words of Colonel Samsel, the American forces "kept stabbing at the flanks of the German Army fastly retreating to Germany."
At the beginning of September, the 117th Squadron received a new assignment that would dramatically alter the lives and destinies of all the unit's men, including Erminio Dominguez. On September 2, 1944, the unit had received the following message from Brigadier General Carlton, the Deputy Commander of the 6th Corps: "Seize and hold Montrevel by daylight, establish road blocks on the roads leading into the town from the South, the East and the North so as to cut off the escape route of the 19th Germany Army."
Troop B, commanded by Captain John L. Wood, was to lead the attack on Montrevel and Troop A, commanded by Thomas C. Piddington, was to keep the lines of communication open. Initially, the seizure of Montrevel went well, and the Americans were able to capture seventy-five German prisoners. However, the American seizure of Montrevel had cut off the main supply route of the 11th Panzer Division, which was engaged at Borg with the American 45th Infantry Division, some distance to the south.
When General Wend von Wietersheim, the commander of the 11th Panzer Division, found out about the seizure of Montrevel, he sent a reconnaissance battalion, reinforced by six tanks and an engineer battalion, to recapture the town. Seeking to cover its own retreat route, the 11th Panzer Division surrounded Montrevel and pinched off the escape routes in and out of the town. Quickly, the Germans moved into Montrevel to extinguish all resistance and safeguard their supply routes.
According to the Departmental Records Branch of the Army's Adjutant General's Office, "again and again, the Troops [of the 117th Regiment] launched attacks against the greatly superior armor and numerical superiority of the enemy. These forays kept the enemy forces off balance and in the dark as to the strength of the defenders."
Erminio Dominguez and the other men of 117th Regiment were able to inflict heavy losses on the German forces. However, the vastly superior German forces, with three years of experience on the Russian front, used heavy artillery against the defenders and gradually squeezed the American defenders into a small corner of the town. As the day war on and the fighting became more intense, the American casualties mounted steadily, while their ammunition ran low.
Finally, according to one battle account, "the handful of [surviving] Americans, surrounded, exhausted, their ammunition expended, with five killed, 60 wounded, 70 prisoners of war, most of their equipment and vehicles in flames, had no choice." By the end of that day, September 3, 1944, the beleaguered Americans of the 117th Cavalry Regiment in Montrevel surrendered to the German forces.
The gallant men of the 117th who defended Montrevel - including Erminio Dominguez - were praised for their bravery and tenacity, even by their adversaries. The Adjutant General's report stated that "the aggressive tactics and the personal bravery of the Troops within the town were of such a high degree that the enemy commander displayed considerable amazement that the force which had opposed him was so small numerically and so lacking in heavy armor."
By the end of the day, the German 11th Panzer Division had captured all the surviving soldiers of the 117th Squadron. Many soldiers from both Troop A and Troop B were captured, including Private Erminio Dominguez. The prisoners of war were quickly transported by train to Stalag VII-A at Moosburg in the German state of Bavaria. By the end of the war, at least 80,000 Allied soldiers would be interned in Moosburg, located 35 kilometers (22 miles) northeast of Munich.
From early September 1944 to April 29, 1945 - a total of eight months - Erminio Dominguez was an inmate of this prisoner of war camp. In the final days of April, as the end of the war drew near, the American POWs in Moosburg anxiously waited for their day of liberation. With the use of clandestine radio equipment, Erminio and the other prisoners were able to learn that the Third Army of General George S. Patton was racing through Bavaria en route to Munich. The Americans knew that their liberation would soon be at hand.
The German soldiers guarding the prisoners became as anxious as the Americans, realizing that they may be called upon by Adolph Hitler, the German dictator, to take retaliatory action against the POWs. On April 28, both the inmates and the guards could hear artillery fire coming from the west and southwest. As the artillery fire grew closer, an amazing event took place.
On April 29, outside the prison gates, the prisoners could see Germans fighting each other. It was later learned that Hitler had issued an order to kill all the prisoners in the camp, but the German Wehrmacht (Army) had refused to take this action. When the Gestapo tried to take possession of Moosburg, the Wehrmacht fought back and prevented the massacre of prisoners of war.
Shortly after noon on the 29th, Combat Team A of the 14th American Armored Division appeared near the camp entrance and the American flag was raised over Moosburg. Erminio and his fellow American soldiers cheered wildly as their liberation took place. But the greatest thrill was yet to come. An hour later, General George S. Patton arrived in a jeep. General Patton gave a rousing speech to the liberated prisoners and then concluded that "we will whip the bastards all the way to Berlin." As it turns out, Moosburg was the last of the POW camps to be liberated. Nine days later, on May 8, 1945, Germany unconditionally surrendered to the Allied forces.
With these events, Erminio Dominguez became a free man. Erminio soon returned to the United States where he received his honorary discharge on October 5, 1945 at Fort Riley, Kansas. The brave veteran of the French and Italian campaigns received a warm welcome from the Dominguez family in Kansas City. However, Erminio was shattered to learn that his youngest brother, Louie, had been killed in action on March 31, 1945, after having made his way across the Rhine River onto German territory.
Young Louie had joined the Army in August, shortly before Erminio's capture in France, so Erminio had not been aware of his whereabouts as the Third Reich crumbled. Louie had looked up to his older brother and aspired to be a soldier like he was. As with the rest of his family, Erminio was devastated by this news.
Although Erminio received four bronze stars, the Purple Heart, the EAME Theater Ribbon, and a good conduct medal for his extraordinary service to his country, he only spoke to his family about his experience once. For Erminio, his POW experience had been both humiliating and frightening. At times, the German camp guards even threw food at the American prisoners, as if they were dogs.
Being held as a POW for any period of time is a traumatic experience and even when a man is released from captivity, he carries around the memories of his imprisonment like a "black cloud." The nightmares keep coming back, even many years after freedom has been restored. As a means of forgetting this terrible chapter in their lives, many POWs refuse to talk about their experiences for the rest of their lives.
Mexican-American veterans who returned to Kansas City found it hard to gain acceptance from their fellow American veterans, so they had to start their own VFW and American Legion chapters. Two years after being released from German captivity, Erminio Dominguez was married to Carmen Garcia. He returned to work for the Santa Fe Railroad, where he took on a position as a forklift operator. On June 8, 1996, Erminio Dominguez died at the age of 74.
Note: Donna Morales is the niece of Erminio, Marshall and Louie Dominguez.
Copyright © Donna S. Morales and John P. Schmal. This work has been derived in its entirety from "The Dominguez Family: A Mexican-American Journey" (scheduled for publication, Summer 2004, Heritage Books, item M2527, available at: http://marketplacesolutions.net/secure/heritagebooks/merchant2/merchant.mvc?Screen=PROD&Store_Code=HBI&Product_Code=M2527.
Bill Ethridge, "Time Out. A Remembrance of World War II." (1998), pp. 137- 143; Moosburg WebTeam, "Stalag VII A: Oral History: Part II: Stalag VII-A Moosburg" Online: http://www.moosburg.org/info/stalag/eth2eng.html.
Cynthia Mines, "Riding the Rails to Kansas: The Mexican Immigrants." McPherson, Kansas: 1980.
Harold J. Samsel, "The Operational History of the 117th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron (Mecz.), World War II." Westfield, New Jersey: 117th Cavalry Association, 1982.
Harold J. Samsel, "The Battle of Montrevel, France, September 3, 1944: 117th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron (Mechanized)." Princeton, New Jersey: Triangle Reproduction, 1986, 2nd edition.
About the Authors: Donna Morales and John Schmal are the authors of "The Indigenous Roots of a Mexican-American Family" (Heritage Books) about Ms. Morales' indigenous roots in Jalisco. Ms. Morales has indigenous ancestors from Lagos de Moreno and Spanish ancestors from Teocaltiche.
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