31 years, three wars, and you retire as a Lieutenant Colonel. You could hardly imagine a more prestigious career in the United States Army. The Army isn't about you as an individual. The Army isn't about making sure you're comfortable. The Army isn't about ensuring an enjoyable career. The Army is about getting things done in the most efficient manner possible through a combined outpouring of manpower and technology like the world has never seen. Hector Mendieta lived this for 31 years and oversaw some of the nation's most complex building projects as a lead member of the Army Corps of Engineers. A young, Hispanic man from a poor, rural, Texas border town goes on to occupy one of the most prestigious positions in our Army's command. That's the beautiful thing about the military. Your past? It doesn't matter in the military. Where you came from? It doesn't matter in the military. Your religion? It doesn't matter in the military. Your skin color? Hector would tell you, it doesn't matter in the military.
Still, his past did follow him throughout his time in service. One could imagine those days as a youngster growing up in Bruni, Texas a one stoplight border town nestled between Laredo and Hebbronville were fraught with sweat drenched, callous building work. You could also surmise that there weren't many breaks on those scorching triple digit days spent in the cotton fields, working until the day yielded to the slightly cooler Texas night. You could even take the liberty of saying there wasn't much time for thoughts centered around a career in service of nation while Hector committed himself to backbreaking labor, in order to help his father on neighboring ranches. Ranch work wasn't about Hector Mendieta. Ranch work wasn't about ensuring his own comfort. Ranch work wasn't about living enjoyably. Ranch work was about creating an atmosphere of efficiency in servitude of something bigger than himself. That work ethic lent itself to an incredibly distinguished career which unsurprisingly led to a rank mostly only hope to attain. 31 years. Think about that amount of time for a minute. Some of you reading this blog haven't even been alive for 31 years. He dedicated that to a life of servitude and honor, in a capacity few will ever understand. Hector will tell you the rest.
Can you talk a little bit about your time at Texas A&M and what it was like leading up to the war?
HM: I was at Texas A&M and just about the end of my second year there, President Roosevelt sent a message out to all the universities that had ROTC. The message said that if you were in the ROTC program you were to be allowed to finish despite the war. He guaranteed all of us a commission so I went home for Christmas. I was 18 years old at the time so my folks were really happy I could finish my education before I went off to war. My older brother had been drafted already. He was a couple years older than I was and he missed a semester so he missed a chance at the exemption. He had to go off to war almost immediately. He was drafted as a private (laughs). Well, that promise to us cadets didn’t last long.
In January, after my Christmas vacation, we got another letter from Roosevelt that told us the Army was short on men and they were going to stop the exemption (laughs). The message told me to report the 1st of March to Ft. Hood, Texas. My exemption didn’t last too long (laughs). I went to my basic training at Ft. Hood and they sorted us out according to what we were doing at A&M. I was in the Corps of Engineers but they sent me to California with the infantry then went up to Camp Abbott, Oregon. It was so cold and snowed the whole time. It was a rough winter camping in those Oregon Mountains. The candidate schools were still overloaded so I had to wait awhile. They sent me back to A&M after that. They finally got me an opening and I graduated in June of ’43 as a Second Lieutenant. My first assignment was in Louisiana as a part of an all black regiment.
Where’d you go from there?
HM: In March of ’44 I made my way into France with my regiment in the northeastern parts. I ended up in Luxembourg with an engineer regiment. I spent about two weeks in between France and Germany on the border. My regiment HQ ended up just across the border in Belgium. We had a secret mission for a certain group of people going into Luxembourg. They took my platoon of 39 people and used us for that mission. Our job was to receive the German high command who’d surrendered to the Allies. It was a very quiet wooded area that we were stationed at. I was given a hotel with some clear surrounding land that spanned about half a block. We setup some cyclone fencing, barbed wire fences, proper interior amenities, machine gun towers and had three days to convert this hotel into a prison.
We got everything together in about three days and before I knew it I had a bunch of fighter planes circling overhead, escorting a convoy of the German High Command into our camp. We cut those hotel room doors in half so we could keep the lower half of the door locked at all times and keep the prisoners in their cells. The next step was to install steel rods in the windows to keep the Germans from escaping through the windows. Within three days we had that compound all finished up. All of the high command was there except for the top dog who’d killed himself. I believe his name was Himmler. Sometimes I remember better than others (laughs). My platoon was the only American unit that knew what was going on there. It was an extremely classified mission. We were there about three more days and we moved from there to Marseilles, France to be with the rest of the company. We were in Marseilles for about a month before we shipped out for Japan.
What was it like to watch the high command of the enemy coming into the complex?
HM: We were all just as wide-eyed as anyone watching the German high command coming into our prison. There you have all these generals and admirals being escorted into the complex we’d built and they were right there in front of us. It was a very strange feeling.
So then you traveled to Japan?
HM: We were on the French coast for about a month and had a great time there (laughs). We enjoyed the city of Marseilles. We didn’t waste any time while we were in Marseilles (laughs). Finally, they had enough ships to take us to the Pacific. I think there were about five thousand of us on that particular ship. We crossed the Panama into the west and passed by some islands that I don’t particularly remember. They brought us to the island about 40 miles from Manila to an Air Force base and they had us stationed there for about six months. I remember driving to Manila and I was always chosen as the driver because the older folks in my group were the heavy drinkers (laughs). We were basically just waiting for the Japanese to surrender by the time we got there. That was an enjoyable part of the war.
Do you remember being nervous about being overseas when you got there?
HM: We were there to support Patton’s 3rd Army and I remember receiving all those casualties coming in while we were working the construction projects that were going to act as holding areas for these guys. There were casualties coming in on the right and left. Our facilities provided the medical needs for these guys coming in and that was my role as a Combat Engineer. We had to take a lot of those old hotels in the town and converting them into hospitals. I remember thinking there would never be a war like this again because of how violent WWII was. I would think people would be afraid of letting that happen again.
Did you go home after the war ended?
HM: When I was at Okinawa I got a call from HQ in Manila after the war ended and they told us they needed replacements. Those guys had been there for 41 straight months. The command told us they didn’t have enough men there and guys had to go home. So, I ended up going straight from Okinawa to the Philippines. I was there for quite some time before I saw home. After that, I got home and went back to A&M to finish all my course work and that’s where I got my flight training in as well. I was able to get my pilot’s license while I was in school. I went back to active duty after I graduated and I told them I wanted to be a full-time pilot. I was able to do my regular engineer activities and take on some time as a pilot as well.
After I graduated I went on to Korea and I served over there as both an engineer and pilot. I flew everywhere I needed to go before the war started and while the war was going on over there. I’d fly to my various projects throughout the Korean countryside and supervise to make sure the construction was completed. I was headquartered in Inchong then in Seoul for awhile and I’d fly back and forth between the two. That was a really awesome job. I had a twin-engine airplane that the commanding general in Japan let me use. He told me, “Mendieta, the plane is yours. Use it for whatever you need. Try to use it enough that command sees a reason to keep it overseas.” That was easy (laughs). I loved flying. We had a lot of construction projects going around because there were so many soldiers coming into the country. They’d build these homes in a pre-fabricated manner in Nashville, ship them to New York, and then bring them over to Korea for the soldiers. It was my job to supervise the setup of those housing areas. Because of the size of these houses, they’d have to bring them on Aircraft Carriers through the canals back around to California then transport them all the way across the Pacific. We were expecting about three hundred families coming to Korea. This was before the war started of course.
Do you remember finding out about the Korean War starting?
HM: There was a decent gap in between WWII and Korea obviously. I got my degree in between that time from A&M and then went back overseas. I was supervising building projects on the Korean Peninsula before things kicked off over there. I was an engineer in the amphibious brigade at the time and we had to come up with landing zones for the troops. So, that meant creating more beach space. We’d had six brigades during WWII but we were down to one at the start of the Korean War. I remember we came ashore and brought in the bulldozers so those first assault groups could come in.
That was a very active situation and it was around September the 15th. I remember there was an assault ship that was supposed to come into shore and the assault boat coming off of the ship got stuck on the sandbar. That was a pretty hairy situation. We had to pushup on the beach ourselves and we came in to rescue them. Another ship backed up in between our assault boat and we were going pretty fast and we didn’t make it to shore. We got stuck on the sandbar about 75 feet before we got to the beach (laughs). Looking back, it's actually a pretty funny situation.
What were some of your most interesting stories from serving over 31 years?
HM: I remember when I was the Range Training Officer and Clint Eastwood was an 18 year old private out on the range. I was up in a tower and I see this guy out there on the firing line stretched out in the prone position and he was just shooting all over the place no matter the length of the target. Even at the 300-meter target, he was shooting everywhere except the target (laughs). He was a young recruit at Ft. Ord and he had a coach as all the other recruits did. I noticed him above anyone else completely missing the targets. I went down to him and yelled, “What’s the problem soldier? Why can’t you hit anything?” He says to me, “This Sergeant keeps messing with my sites and it’s making me hard to hit the target.” He wasn’t getting anywhere close to these targets.
So I go down to the line and said, “Let me see your gun.” I pointed it down range at the 300 meter target and hit bulls-eye the first time. I said, “There’s nothing wrong with this gun. There’s something wrong with you (laughs).” I ran into him later on Camp Pendleton and he was yelling at recruits. I walked up to him later on and he sounded a lot like I did. I was hearing a lot of the same orders, same vocal inflections and jargon I’d shouted at him in training. I walked up to him and said, “You’re doing a good job with these troops.” He replied, “Yes sir, I’m just doing my best.” I said, “Well you’re using a lot of the same lingo I used with you.” He laughed when he remembered who I was. I had him sign that picture you see in my folder years later (laughs).
What do you remember about your time after the Korean War?
HM: I came back and was assigned to Washington D.C. I ran across a girl that was working at one of the top hospitals there in D.C. We dated for a little bit and were married up until about a year and a half ago. She was a wonderful woman. I took her into her appointment one day a year and a half ago. She seemed to be alright when I took her in. She was very happy. I remember she stood up and she smiled at me and said, “Wait for me. I’ll be back soon.” I waited there in the lounge for awhile and a doctor came in and told me, “She has some things that need to be followed up on.” They said they wanted to observe her for a couple days. She passed out and she never opened her eyes after that. She was connected to all kinds of wires and that was the last I saw of her. She was in a coma for about six days. The doctor said, “Well, that’s it. I’m sorry.” We were married for about 45 years. I still remember our wedding day at the Officer’s Club very well.
What do you remember about Vietnam?
HM: I was at the Army headquarters in Saigon during the Vietnam War and I was assigned to inspect units of all types. I had a lot of experience with hospitals by that time and supervising their construction. Obviously, there were a lot of guys getting hurt and killed during Vietnam so the job was a big one. I inspected the hospitals and the medical detachments to make sure everything was the way it should be. The assignment was about an 18-month tour and I was in command of making sure all the inspections across the medical units, aviation units, and unit housing were done properly. It was a big job with a lot of responsibility.
How would you describe your Army experience?
HM: The Army experience was the most enjoyable thing in the world to me. Everything I got to do in my 28 years of service made my life so much better. I loved being an officer. I had a tremendous amount of responsibilities that I enjoyed. I worked with all the guys I led but I treated all the guys I was over like they were on my level. I never talked down to them. I remember being at Ft. Claiborne and being like a brother to the men that were assigned to me. My superior said to our battalion commander one day, “Sir, I sure enjoy having Hector as the best assistant I’ve ever had. I like to talk to him because when I need something done he just listens and does it immediately. I keep giving assignments and he just goes and does it. Not only does he do it but he figures out the best way to do it.” I didn’t always do it the way they wanted me to do it but I always got it done (laughs). I joined as an officer because I thought that if I was going to be in the Army I wanted to be able to affect the greatest change. The point of having a job to me is to try to reach the possible highest part so you can affect the most change. I always wanted to have the most responsibility possible.
How did you feel about the wars and the justice of being there in those situations?
HM: I served in WWII, Korea, Vietnam and a bunch of places in between where there just didn’t happen to be a war going on. I’m sure if there was another war in between they would’ve sent me there too (laughs). I didn’t like war of course but they just happened to come up. I felt I had to help win because we enjoy such a peaceful life here. I didn’t ask about why we were there or what we were doing. I love my country so I did what I was told. If there was a war going on I wanted to help any way I could in that war.
Why did you join the Army in the first place?
HM: War has a major impact on society and I knew I needed to be a part of that. I never wanted to be out of the fight because I felt like it made you look like you were avoiding it. I didn’t ever want anyone to think I was avoiding war. I always wanted to be there. I retained my membership as long as I could and that lasted 31 years. There were other things I wanted to do before I joined the Army growing up in an agricultural town, but that all changed when WWII came up. I knew I had to help. I loved my country even more after I went to war. I was glad to participate and help maintain those freedoms and that’s been my mission for a lifetime. I still have my uniform ready and I’m ready to go to another war if they really need me (laughs).
What were your best memories of your family?
HM: My kids are good kids and I’m proud of that. I remember we taught them a lot about hard work. I was raised on a farm and we all planted cotton, corn, and some other vegetables. My dad had the kids pick cotton and shuck the corn from a very early age. We all knew how to harvest all of that as well. That's what built my work ethic. I remember when I was in Japan, coming back from work and playing with my kids when they were little, all evening. At night when we went to bed we had cribs and my wife would put them to bed. The minute they thought she was asleep they’d crawl out of the cribs and play on the floor next to me while I was doing paperwork (laughs). Those are some really good memories. We were living in Tokyo then and I was helping design buildings as they rebuilt Japan after WWII.
It's a bit of an unsettling feeling to watch the titans of our former generations fading. These men once created our infrastructure, built the bridges, blew the bridges, landed on the bloodiest of beaches, fought from house to house across the French countryside, and tirelessly battled from trench to trench on Pacific islands they'd never heard of. It's hard to believe that was only a couple generations ago. Yet, you see it in their eyes when you sit with them and watch them retrace the steps of yesteryear. You watch as their eyes light up and they comb through those years of their youth spent in battle. To Hector, this process isn't just scouring memories of youth. It means actively searching 31 years of his life.
It's a process of enlightenment in sharing those moments of remembrance with these great warriors. Their experiences might've been similar in some regards, but in many, they were completely different; varying from one veteran to the next. That's the power of the individual story. There is no legacy equalizer. Hector grew up on a ranch in a south Texas border town most couldn't find on a map and went on to become a storied Army officer. Talk about living the American dream and doing it in one of the most selfless ways possible. There's endless inspiration there. One might've looked at Hector's early life and seen a multi-generation rancher, someone who would never leave his town. Instead, not only did he leave, but he went on to travel the world and partake in every major conflict over a 30 year period. Can we thank him enough for that?