Santa Fe is the world to Manuel Rodriguez. He was born at home on Cerro Gordo Road in 1923 to Manuel Rodriguez Sr., and Gregorita Montoya. He is one of seven among the couple's 15 children who lived to adulthood during a time when the infant mortality rate was extremely high. Today, he considers himself fortunate to still be in contact with his three remaining siblings.
The 88-year-old remembers his childhood as idyllic. His father cared for the family's horses and was a employee with the city of Santa Fe as a dog catcher. His mother was known throughout Santa Fe as a curandera (holistic healer) and sobadora (massage therapist). Rodriguez attended St. Francis Parochial Elementary School and Lee Harvey Junior High School and, during his teens, participated with neighborhood men to clean the Upper Canyon Road reservoir.
He's been married to his childhood sweetheart, Tony Valdez, for 64 years. The couple have four children, four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Later in life, Rodriguez's jobs included working as a floor walker at Tagart's Department Store on San Francisco Street, as an order taker at the W.E. Young Weaving Shop on Castillo Street (now Paseo de Peralta) and as a foreman and manager for the Zinn & Miles Liquor Distributing Co. In the 1970s, he retired from his custodial duties at Santa Fe Preparatory School. During his retirement he's remained active at Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2951 and has taken up woodcarving. Rodriguez has had a full, wonderful life.
As an 11th-grader at St. Michael's High School, Rodriguez enlisted in the Army and became witness to and a participant in one of the most extraordinary events in his lifetime -- the invasion of Normandy. This Wednesday,
June 6, marks the 68th anniversary of D-Day, the largest seaborne insurgency during World War II, consisting of more than 3 million troops from the U.S., Canada, Europe, Australia and New Zealand.
He remembers, "When I joined the Army in 1942, I wanted to be a hero. I had taken some medical training in Denver, and I thought I could be a real asset to the war effort. I was sent overseas in 1943 as part of the 1st Infantry Division to take part in the European Theatre. My first stop was England, where our troops received eight months of training. Then we were sent to Tunisia, in northern Africa, where we beat the pants off the Germans. That victory was followed by the invasion
of Sicily, which also ended in victory. We felt like giants. We weren't afraid of anything.
But on June 5, we approached the beach at Normandy -- many of us made seasick because of the rough waters -- and realized that it was only the beginning of the tough battle that lay ahead."
Rodriguez said everyone was instructed to write "LC-1331" on their helmets, so that the landing aircraft could identify those who were assigned to their station. "As we jumped into the cold water with machine-gun blasts from the Germans raining down on us, we were immersed in a sea of red and surrounded by the smell of blood. There were approximately 12,000 casualties from that battle. During the commotion, I got separated from my platoon and I didn't think I was going to make it. But suddenly, I heard a voice call out to me in Spanish. It was Atanacio Sandoval from San Acacio Street in Santa Fe! When I saw my old vecino [neighbor], I knew that I would be fine."
Rodriguez also fought in the Battle of the Bulge toward the end of World War II and aided in the liberation of Nazi concentration camp prisoners. He recalls, "When we arrived in a camp in northern Germany, the dead were stacked up like firewood."
For his World War II efforts, Rodriguez received both the Bronze and Silver Star medals for valor and bravery. In addition, he has also received numerous combat medals and wartime citations.
While stationed in Nuremberg, where he witnessed a city decimated, he was given the opportunity to re-enlist in the Army, and said, "When they called my name to see if I wanted to continue in the military, I said 'Heck no, I want to go back to Cerro Gordo.'" The officer in chief said, 'Never heard of it. Where's Cerro Gordo?' When I said it was in Santa Fe, his reply was, 'Where the heck is Santa Fe.?' "
Ana Pacheco's weekly tribute to our community elders appears every Sunday. She can be reached at 505-474-2800. Her book, J. Paul Taylor: The Man from Mesilla, was recently published by the Museum of New Mexico Press.
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