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Borderlands: Company E Survivor Recalls Days as Prisoner of War (with 2017 update)

A unique resource of faculty edited college student articles on the history and culture of the El Paso, Juárez, and Southern New Mexico regions.

Company E Survivor Recalls Days as Prisoner of War (with 2017 update)

By Leigh E. Smith Jr.

Update 2017

For many soldiers who fought in World War II, memories of great sacrifice and hardship are still vivid. Those not wounded in combat were considered lucky. For Ricardo Palacios Jr., being wounded in combat was bad enough, but even worse was becoming a prisoner of war. 

""Image caption: Ricardo Palacios Jr., shown here in 1995, was a POW in World War II Germany. (Photo by Leigh E. Smith Jr.)

On the night of Jan. 21, 1944, Palacios prepared to cross central Italy’s Rapido River in assault boats with his platoon, members of Company E, 141st  Infantry Regiment, 36th Infantry Division. The boat crossing failed, so the company pulled back and waited for the engineers to build a pontoon bridge.

The bridge consisted of small rubber pontoon boats tied together with wooden planks over the tops and rope rails for the men to use as they walked across. The bridge was about 36 inches wide.

The Germans were waiting for them, however, and casualties were heavy. “I remember getting up early the next morning to see what was going on. All I could see was a lot of pieces of bodies scattered all over from both sides,” Palacios said.

 The survivors were now on the enemy side of the river and were rounded up by German soldiers. Palacios remembered, “The first time I heard a German officer say ‘Aufstehen,’ I thought I better get up. I had a bar of chocolate in my back pocket. That was the first thing he went for — the chocolate bar. I knew he was an officer because you can distinguish them, very sharply dressed, even in combat.

“He looked at me and said, ‘Amerikaner Hund.’ I didn’t know what he was saying. He had fire in his eyes.You knew he was mad. Later on, I asked him at the POW camp what ‘Amerikaner Hund’ meant. He said, ‘American Dog. You’re a dog.’”

January 21 will always remind Palacios of the day he became a prisoner of war. That day he also turned 21 years old.

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Palacios continued, “Right after they took the chocolate bar, two other sergeants from the unit and I were brought over to a wall near the white house. A couple of German soldiers were pointing machine pistols at us and a German sergeant gave them an order. I said to myself, ‘This is it. They’re going to shoot us.’

“I closed my eyes as they brought the machine guns up to aim, and I heard a loud noise. One German had slapped his leg so it would sound like a gunshot. I opened my eyes and they were laughing. They were young soldiers like us, 19 or 20 years old. They thought it would be funny. It’s a helluva feeling,” he said.

When Palacios was captured, he was moved from place to place and put with other Americans who were captured at the river. He recalled encountering three friends from the unit. “I met up with Edwardo Lalo Romo, Raul Caracena and Eduardo Carreon, all from El Paso. We saw each other at the first camp. We were really happy to see each other.” Palacios was interned in several POW camps, including Stalag II B and a sub-camp of Dachau.

“I remember having nothing to eat until we reached Dachau POW camp near Munich,” he said. His final destination was Stalag III B prison camp near Buchenwald, where he arrived in March 1945. Palacios recalled the processing and interrogation vividly: 

“You come from Mexico?” a German soldier asked.
“No sir,” I replied.
“You don’t understand English? I can get somebody in Spanish.”
“I understand English, I understand Spanish.”
“Your parents come from Mexico?”
“Yes sir. But I was born in the United States.”

The Germans who interrogated Palacios and his fellow Hispanic prisoners could not believe these men were in the American army. They assumed that since El Paso is so close to the Mexican border, the Mexican army had joined the American army in the fighting.

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The Germans were always very efficient when keeping records of prisoners. They wrote everything down, took fingerprints and photographs and kept all the information on a card for each prisoner. Palacios was able to obtain his card when fellow prisoners ransacked the administration building of the camp after the Germans deserted it to escape the Russian advance. He keeps it in a plastic folder along with postcards he wrote to his mother while he was imprisoned.

As a prisoner, Palacios became very ill, suffering from malnutrition, dysentery, pneumonia and other ailments, the effects of which still bother him. Palacios recalled that inadequate food and exposure to the weather caused most of his health problems. “Mostly we sergeants read, exercised, played cards and talked,” he said. “We just tried to keep our morale up.”

Palacios weighed 130 pounds when captured. When he was freed, he weighed only 98 pounds. On April 22,1945, Palacios and the other prisoners of Stalag III B were liberated by Russian soldiers. Shortly after, he was returned to American troops in Hildesheim, Germany.

Palacios looked back on his release and trip back to the United States: “After Hildesheim, we were taken to Camp Lucky Strike near Le Havre, France. We stayed there for about two weeks where we were examined, debriefed and nutritionally rehabilitated. I was given a seven-day leave to London where I really enjoyed myself. Later I was sent back to the United States to a POW rehabilitation center in Santa Barbara, Calif., where I adjusted to civilian life and was discharged from the Army.”

Because a fire destroyed Army records in St. Louis, it was 21 years before he received medals — the Silver Star, two Bronze Stars and the Purple Heart — for his actions at the Rapido River on Jan. 21, 1944.

“I’ve never been looking for publicity,” Palacios said, “I’ve never looked for medals. If they ask me, I’m not a hero. I was doing my work and the heroes were left behind, like Captain Chapin and the rest of those guys from Company E. I was just lucky to survive.”

A sad note is that Army records never showed Palacios being a prisoner of war, and he is still fighting with Veterans Affairs 50 years after the event for his benefits.

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After WW II ended, the battles continued for many of the men who had served and were not recognized or compensated for their war services. For many years,Ricardo Palacios Jr. attempted to convince the Veterans Administration that he had been a POW, but there were insufficient records to substantiate his claims.

""Image caption: The memorial to El Pasoans in Company E is located at the Chalio Acosta Recreational Center. (Photo courtesy of the El Paso Museums and Cultural Affairs Department)

Shortly after I met and interviewed Mr. Palacios for my research paper at El Paso Community College in 1994-1995, he allowed me to copy his service and medical records, and through my own research I was able to acquire sworn statements by fellow camp internees that were submitted to the American Red Cross after Mr. Palacios was repatriated to American Forces. After contacting several members of Congress and President William Clinton, Mr. Palacios was able to receive almost 50 years of back pay and Veterans Disability compensation as well as official recognition as a former Prisoner of War. The Palacios family and my family celebrated the occasion at a brunch.

Manny Rivera contacted me and invited me to the ribbon cutting and opening of Chapin High School which was named for the Company E Commander Capt. John L. Chapin who was killed in the Rapido River assault in 1944. There had been much discussion about the name of the high school, and the surviving members of the unit unanimously voted to name the school after Capt. Chapin.

I had the honor of meeting Capt. Chapin’s wife and son and we stood together in the entranceway of the school and saw letters, a canteen and other personal effects of Capt. Chapin displayed at the school.  Manuel “Manny” Rivera passed away in 2006 and is buried at the Fort Bliss National Cemetery.

World War II has been over for 72 years, which means that many of the veterans of that war who were in their teens and early twenties are now in their nineties; approximately 1,500 WW II veterans pass away every day. It was my intent 22 years ago as a student at EPCC to capture the stories of two such veterans before they were forever lost. I had no idea the impact the research would have on me nor the friendships that would develop and endure over the years with these two very special veterans and friends. It has been an honor and privilege to know these two brave men. Without their stories and those of other veterans, future generations may not understand the word Patriotism and what it costs.

In 1983, Alfred Lugo, a California veterans activist, produced a documentary on Company E, but many years would pass before the American public knew about the men. In 2008, the El Pasoans of Company E were honored with a bas relief bronze memorial by artist Julio Sanchez de Alba at the Chalio Acosta Recreation Center on Delta Street. Several books have been written on these valiant men, including:

  • Patriots from the Barrio by Dave Gutierrez, 2014
  • The Men of Company E: Toughest Chicano Soldiers of World War II by Samuel S. Ortega and Arnulfo Hernández Jr., 2015 
  • Among the Valiant: Mexican Americans in WW2 and Korea, by Raul Morin, 1966
  • Five Years Five Countries Five Campaigns: An Account of the One Hundred Forty First Infantry in World War II, ed. Clifford H. Peek, 1945.

Leigh E Smith Jr., Curator
U.S. Army Non-Commissioned
Officer Heritage and Education Center
Fort Bliss, Texas

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