Delta Street monument honors men of Company E

Joe Olvera

Joe Olvera is a long-time journalist whose latest book is - Chicano Sin Fin: Memoirs of a Chicano Journalist

© 2011

On Jan. 21, 1944, more than 1,700 men were ordered to cross the Rio Rapido, a treacherous river in Southern Italy to confront the German Army that lay in waiting to begin a bombardment that would waste many of those same men – 144 were from El Paso.

Despite the fact that the enemy had every advantage, picking off the men as they crossed the river, their heroism can never be forgotten.

“I was in the hospital, and the next day, they brought in a lot of litters with wounded men. I was able to talk to one of the wounded and he was one of my squad. At this time I couldn’t resist anymore when he told me that Roque Segura and Captain John Chapin had both been killed. I stole a jeep and made my way to battalion headquarters. Actually, the thing that I wanted was to challenge him to a duel right there and then. (There is some debate on whether Captain Navarrete went gunning for Lt. Gen. Mark Clark or Major Roger Landry). It was him and me and that’s it. I was confident, very confident. I had been wounded several times already, so I didn’t care. I just wanted to find the way so he could defend himself.”

Thus spoke then-Capt. Gabriel Lechuga Navarrete, seemingly speaking from the grave. But, no, he wasn’t speaking from the grave. He was speaking in a documentary filmed by Mestizo Productions in 1983. Produced and written by veterans advocate Alfredo Lugo in California, the documentary was produced at a time when most of the men from Company E were still alive, including Navarrete.

Company E (141st Army Infantry Regiment, 36th Division) was the only all-Chicano unit during World War II. Many of its members came from El Paso, and most of them came from the same barrio, the same high school – namely, El Segundo Barrio and Bowie High School. Despite their heroism in sacrificing their lives for their country in Southern Italy, they still faced discrimination at home. In one incident, while still in Fort Hood, Texas, going through infantry training, several men of Company E went to a restaurant to celebrate Naverrete’s battlefield promotion to sergeant. They were in for a rude awakening.

When they got to the restaurant, they found a sign that said: No Mexicans and no dogs allowed.” They were told that they could order at the rear entrance. They could order, but they couldn’t eat inside the restaurant. Navarrete told the commanders at the base about the incident and warned that he was going to join the Mexican Army to find respect. However, action was taken and that particular restaurant was placed off-limits to all military personnel. The restaurant was forced to pay a fine and had to open its doors to every military and civilian diner, including Mexicans.

The drama of the men from Company E stems from their efforts to cross the Rio Rapido to confront the enemy forces which were solidly entrenched on the other side of the raging body of water. Navarrete, on an earlier reconnoiter, had uncovered the overwhelming number of German soldiers and their firepower patiently waiting to tighten the noose they had set. Navarrete, knowing what awaited the men, warned against the crossing but his warnings were ignored.

On that tragic day, the more than 1,700 men did cross to the other side, against very heavy odds. The Germans then had the luxury of picking off the men one by one as they died needlessly. In the documentary by Lugo, Manny remembered that the Germans were confused about the men. “The Germans thought we had the Mexican Army there fighting against them because we spoke Spanish to each other. We were just like brothers,” said Manny Rivera.

Thus, the 1,700 men, including the 144 from El Paso died in what was virtually a suicide mission. Even the German high command were amazed at the stupidity of the American high command who ordered the men to attempt the crossing, knowing what was waiting for them on the other side. But, the men never flinched or hesitated. When they were ordered to cross the river, they crossed – as any good soldier would have done, even though they knew that a terrible death awaited them. This action was, at that time, called one of the biggest blunders of World War II. German Field Marshall Albert Kesselring agreed with Navarrete that the crossing should never have been attempted.

For years, the story of the bravery of the Men of Company E languished in obscurity, as efforts to arrive at the truth of the infamous river crossing were not taken seriously by the media or the military command. It wasn’t until Lugo and his Mestizo Productions took the challenge to tell the truth. Even that documentary didn’t open the gates for recognition of the men and their heroics. It’s taken more than 60 years for the recognition that had been denied to begin to appear.

The Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC), with the help of U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-El Paso, recently honored Navarrete and Ricardo Palacios Jr., one of the few remaining survivors of that battle.

On the home front, through the efforts of City Rep. Beto O’Rourke and a committee of El Pasoans, including Julieta Olvera, Javier Diaz, Santos “Super” Sanchez, Robert Navarrete, David Navarrete and Esther Perez were successful in having a monument built to honor the 144 heroes from El Paso.

The monument, a fantastic work of bas relief at the Chalio Acosta Recreation Center on Delta Street serves as a reminder of the men’s exploits. Former Texas State Senator Eliot Shapleigh said at the time that: “Captain Navarrete represents a long, proud tradition of valor in war. For generations, Hispanics from El Paso have been on the front lines from Germany to Vietnam. Our community should honor those whose courage has guaranteed our freedom throughout the years.”

Sin Fin

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