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Ode to Michael Salazar

Unsung heroes


Unsung heroes

Ode to Pfc. Michael Salazar


     Someone once said God takes the good ones at an early age. The author could very well have been speaking of my brother, Pfc. Michael Salazar, who at the young age of 19 sacrificed his life on a distant battlefield during World War II so that all Americans and I could continue to enjoy the blessings of this land.

     Fifty-four years have not tarnished my memory of Mike though I was only 14 at the time. He was one of four older brothers, (and the youngest) to have served with the U.S. Army during the global conflict.

     I cannot begin to describe the pain and anguish suffered by my parents and other family members upon being notified that Mike had been killed in action. The only thing told to us by the Army was that he died in battle on April 5, 1945, in the vicinity of Gleidorf, Germany, while serving with L Company, 4th Platoon, 395th Infantry, 99th Division. (The many letters of consolation sent to us by various Army officials shed no additional details surrounding his death.)

     Upon the passing of my parents in the 1960s, I somehow inherited Mike's file, which had been kept in an old gray metal ammunition box. This past July 1998, I again opened the box and spent some time in reading its contents. On that day my attempts began to locate buddies who may have been with him on the day he died and who could give first-hand accounts of that fateful day. It was a long shot to say the least, but one I felt I had to take. There had to be somebody out there who may have held his hand and consoled him during his final moments of life, or could at least tell us what happened to him.

     My journey began with a letter to U.S. Congressman Marty Martinez. Several leads were given to me and I was told a family member had to request Mike's "Individual Deceased Personnel File." After waiting for a response to my written request, I wrote for help to the U.S. President. Shortly after, the requested file arrived which contained limited information - not what I had hoped it would reveal.

     Then my luck changed. In reading the March 8, 1999, issue of Newsweek magazine entitled "Americans at War," one of its articles stopped me in my tracks. It was written by Staff Sgt. Curtis Whiteway who was a member of the 99th Division. I immediately wrote to Newsweek's editor asking if he could put me in contact with Sgt. Whiteway. Soon after Newsweek called and gave me Curtis' phone number in Vermont. A call was quickly placed and in speaking with him, he told me he served with the 394th Infantry.

     He did not know my brother but said he would mail me information and asked me to contact Bill Meyer, editor of the Checkerboard in Kansas, which publishes news of the 99th Infantry Division Association. (I have been greatly impressed by the association's professionalism. All this, mind you, 54 years following World War II and many items are written by the ex-soldiers themselves about their memories of the war.)

     On March 19, 1999, I received two lists from Curtis. One was a "killed in action" list which bore my brother's name. The second had names and addresses of men who were members of the association. There were 38 men from L Company on the list. The task at hand was to locate which one(s) may have known Mike.

     Many responded by saying they did not know him and most gave me names and addresses of others whom I could contact. In early April 1999, my phone recorder had a message from Roger Meyer of Wasco CA, who said he had information concerning my brother. I quickly phoned back and spoke with Roger. This was followed by a letter from him which arrived on April 22. (Letter is reprinted in its entirety below.)

Mr. Salazar,


     It gives me great pleasure to finally be able to tell the story of Mike Salazar, the bravest man I ever knew. I regret I was never able to tell it to Mike's parents, but I simply did not know how to contact them. He was a most likable young man and all who knew him were saddened by his death. He deserves the highest honors.

     I believe I can clear up some of the questions you have about the death of your brother, Mike Salazar.

     Let me begin this way: On that morning when Mike was killed we went on the attack in an easterly direction down a long, lightly wooded bridge. About one-quarter to one-half mile away to the south was another ridge parallel to ours and between was a flat valley that was farmland. On our side of the other ridge, near the bottom, was a road that followed the ridge. On this road were three of our Sherman tanks across from our infantry company proceeding in the same direction we were. It was very early in the morning, just first light. It was still so dark it was difficult to see.

     Our scouts discovered a house beside our ridge located on the flat valley but within 100 feet of the bottom of the ridge. On further examination they discovered a Tiger tank pulled up next to the house with some long boards leaning against the tank and the house in an attempt to conceal the tank. The scouts didn't know at first it was a Tiger, they just knew in the poor light it was a tank.

     They notified our commanding officer who had an agreement with the tanks that, if we wished to bring anything we wanted them to fire on to their attention, we were to fire on the object with machine gun tracers. I took the order to the M Company heavy machine gun section attached to us for this operation. They set up and fired on the house and our tanks immediately fired on us instead of the house. They probably couldn't see the tank from their angle, and they apparently could not tell which way the tracers were going. They came within 20 feet of hitting our machine gun. Needless to say, the machine gun crew stopped firing and got out of there. Me too.

     During this interruption in firing on the house, apparently one man of the German tank crew got out of the house and into the Tiger tank. (We assumed the tank crew were all asleep in the house.) He started it up and headed out toward our tanks in making a U-turn in the soft, rain-soaked farmland. Because of the quality of German gasoline and the fact that the engine of the tank was cold, it sputtered and misfired and the driver seemed to have trouble just keeping it running. Our lead tank fired on the German tank and it hit on the front with a solid, armor-piercing round. The round bounced harmlessly straight up off the nose of the German tank.

     We could see it because by this time the light had improved greatly. Our tanks had been proceeding up their road until they saw the Tiger coming toward them from the back of the house. Our tanks were single file on that narrow road, about 100 feet apart. The last tank in the procession, immediately upon sighting the Tiger, went into reverse, backing up the road until it went over a small hill which put it out of sight. The second tank, attempting to back up, high-centered itself and the crew got out and ran, following the last tank over the hill.

     The lead U.S. tank which had fired on the Tiger, never fired after the one shot which bounced off, even when the German tank continued its U-turn and was now facing away from our tanks, giving them the target they all hoped for - the lightly armored rear of the tank. Because they were unable to back up (the second tank blocked the road), the U.S. crew in the lead tank got out and ran, even though the Tiger tank had not made any hostile gestures. It appeared to us that only one member of the German crew was in the tank at this time. The German tank then continued on a course away from us and some of our guys saw the crew leave the house and run up the small road that the German tank was following until they all went out of sight. I tell you about this little skirmish because what came later is easier to understand if you know this.

     L Company again began to follow our initial easterly direction along the ridge. This ridge petered out into a very narrow valley that ran at right angles to our ridge. Behind the valley was another ridge running the same direction as the small valley, but was taller than the ridge we were on. The whole area was growing progressively more heavily wooded. To our right our ridge sloped gradually down to the valley floor. We discovered the Germans were on the ridge facing us in some strength and their tank was seen down to our lower right at about two o'clock, sort of hidden by the trees.

     The German tank was a dangerous threat to us. It had an excellent field of fire, the adjoining German troops were to the tank's right (our front), and with our tanks out of the picture there was little chance we could continue to advance. In fact, we were suddenly on the defensive and not in a very good position for that.

     An infantry company had few defenses effective against a tank, and fewer than ordinary against a Tiger. The bazooka is the only weapon the infantry had against a tank and it had then a rather short range, only about 100 yards for acceptable accuracy. I think I misspoke when I was talking to you and said 300 yards. Actually 300 yards is extreme range and the weapon's accuracy was then most unreliable. However, German tankers were deathly afraid of our bazookas and went to extreme measures when they suspected bazookas in the vicinity.

     In this paragraph only, I am reporting on hearsay. I was not with your brother when he was killed, but was not far away. My duties as a platoon runner had taken me elsewhere. I believe I had gone to the rear of the column to bring up the mortar section and arrived back only minutes after Mike was killed. Mike had apparently sized up the seriousness of our situation and together with Pfc.(?) Pederson, his ammo bearer and loader, went out after the German tank. As a bazooka man, that was his job. He took it seriously. It took guts to go after that tank. Tiger tanks were awesome. They were by far the best tanks in the European theater. They were armed with the highly efficient 88 cannon as well as rapid-fire machine guns and were formidable.

     When I arrived on the ridge above the tank, I learned of Mike's death. I believe the way it was reported to 1st Lt. Erskine Wickersham, the company commander, in my hearing was, "He (Mike) went after that tank and it got him." I wish I could give you more details than this, but I simply do not know any more. Pederson had a hole through the shoulder of his field jacket about as big as a 50-cent piece and a corresponding hole in his shoulder. He appeared to be in shock and said nothing. I do not remember who told Lt. Wickersham of Mike's passing, and to this day I have never heard of Peterson again. I believe he was seriously wounded and may not have survived. However, many of the wounded who survived never contacted the company again.

     To this day I regret Mike's death. He was one of the most likable young men I ever met. More than 50 years have not dimmed my memory of him. I believe he had planned to go to college but was drafted instead. You have my sincerest sympathies.

     I have a friend, another member of L Company, who may remember Mike and who also may have a copy of the Morning Reports of that day. I am contacting him in this matter.

     My memory of the events during WWII is fading, but I remember the action I have described above very well. It was of importance to me because of Mike.

Roger H. Meyer


      

     My brother was born on March 1, 1926, in Hanford CA. He was one of eight sons born to Jose and Marie Salazar who migrated in 1916 from Yiaputo, Guanajuato (Mexico) to the United States and eventually settled in the Los Angeles area. Each of their sons served in the U.S. military.) The remainder of Mike's family consisted of four sisters.

     Mike attended Catholic parochial schools and was an altar boy prior to enrolling at East Los Angeles Garfield High School (of the "Stand and Deliver" movie fame) where he excelled in his studies and became a member of the Ephebian National Honor Society. In gymnastics, he set a Garfield record in the rope climb. A talented musician, Mike also performed with the school's orchestra as a violinist and pianist. He always comes to memory each time I hear someone play George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue," which to me, is one of the most haunting melodies ever written. Mike played it to perfection.

     He was one of five brothers to have attended Garfield. I, in turn went to neighboring Cantwell High (Montebello CA), where I pitched hard ball for four years. Ironically, my first outing in my freshman year was against Garfield. When their coach saw me he said, "Oh no! Not another one!" Our coach overheard him and responded, "Yeah, but we got this one." (We apparently resembled each other.) Cantwell won the game.

     The above is mentioned because it was 1948 - the year Mike's remains were returned to us. He, along with 7,571 other American dead from Europe, arrived aboard the USAT Carroll Victory, which landed in Oakland CA, on Nov. 18, 1948. The old gray ammo metal box held a clipping from the now-defunct Los Angeles Examiner newspaper printed that day and listing each name.

     The box also contained some spent M-1 rifle casings which were fired at his funeral soon after in East Los Angeles's Cavalry Cemetery, where my parents had purchased a family plot. He had been accompanied home by a military escort. The soldier stayed at our home until the funeral.

     Mike had been drafted into service on Aug. 19, 1944, and nine months later, three days after being promoted to private first class and five weeks after turning 19, he and Pfc. Pederson (in defense of their unit) went out and took on one of Germany's most formidable weapons of World War II.

     It took 54 years to find out Mike had died a hero. There were 405,399 Americans who died in military service during World War II and another 77,245 declared "missing in action." This is written as a tribute to just one of them - one who deeply affected my life.

     A kid of 14 never forgets who treated him to his first chocolate milkshake at the local drugstore, nor the one who took him to the Orpheum Theater on Broadway in downtown Los Angeles to see the "Spike Jones and His City Slickers" band perform live on stage. Mike treated me with the money he had earned the summer of 1944 working in construction with our father. I remember seeing him coming home from work looking very tired and all dusty, but always with that friendly smile on his face. He would soon be drafted.

     Recently my wife and I went to dine at a Mexican restaurant which features live Mariachi music. I cried that night thinking of Mike and my other older brothers who sacrificed so much. I felt their presence.

     What would Mike have become later in life? God can only answer that. Some family members thought he would become a Roman Catholic priest. His musical talents could have taken him to the world's great music halls or his athletic abilities to the Olympics.

     All I do know is that he was greatness in the making - cut short by an act of bravery which cost him his life.

     (Roger Meyer was awarded the Silver Star that same day for other battle action not associated with Mike's death. His letter to me was shared with my brothers, sisters, and my four children.)

     Special thanks to the men of the 99th Infantry Division Association who enabled me to at last find out how Mike died so long ago.

Alex P. Salazar

225 W. Gleason St.

Monterey Park CA 91754

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