PROVIDENCE – Joseph Garcia turns 102 on February 25. The WWII veteran has his own room at the Cache Valley Assisted Living and Memory Care in Providence. Although a celebration is warranted, COVID necessitates a milder approach.
Garcia’s hearing is gone so he answers questions when they are written on a whiteboard with an erasable marker. The Veterans Administration said his hearing was compromised due to being a machine gun operator for 18 months during WWII.
The centenarian was born in Kansas City in 1919 and has lived though some of the toughest times in our nation’s history. As a baby of a single mother that was abandoned by her husband, they boarded a train right after WWI and headed for California
“They lived in railroad yard in Kansas City. Garcia’s mother Aurora had come up from Mexico and lived in a railroad yard,” said his grandson Frank Montoya. “He was still a baby when they took the train to Bakersfield California.”
“In Bakersfield, my grandmother met guy who owned a dry-cleaning business. After they married they moved to Fresno California,” he said. “When my grandfather was 16 years old his mother Aurora died of scarlet fever leaving him alone with his stepfather and his kids.”
At 17 years old Garcia was turned loose to make his way in the world.
“He worked in farms as a mule skinner, he managed the mules for a farmer. He also worked at a foundry machining parts for ships,” Montoya said. “He was considered an essential worker, so he didn’t have to serve in the war.”
In 1944, he enlisted in the 41st Infantry Division.
Garcia joined the army and after basic training he was shipped to New Guinee, then to the Philippines as machine gunner, leaving his wife alone with their two children.
He felt like he had to help the war effort.
“My grandfather was a liaison for the Army in the Philippines because both he and some of the Filipinos spoke Spanish,” he said. “He could also get intel from the locals to know where the Japanese soldiers were,” Montoya said. “He became popular over there because he could communicate in Spanish to the native Filipinos.”
His language skills helped many of the troops get home cooked meals while they were stationed there.
Montoya said he tells the story of his grandfather following another soldier up a hill on a dead run with bullets hitting the ground all around him.
“A man in a Piper Cub airplane flew over yelling at him to get down from the hill. There was a large number of Japanese soldiers on the other side of the hill,” the grandson said. “The pilot was wearing a red baseball cap and yelling and waving over the noise of the airplane.”
The pilot saved Garcia’s life.
“He was telling the story at a reunion in 2015 and the man sitting next to him teared up and pulled an old red ball cap out of his back pocket. He was that pilot,” Montoya said. “He lived an exceptional life and been an example of honor, integrity and duty to country.”
Garcia was part of the occupation of Japan in 1945. He was assigned rotations in Hiroshima after the atomic blast that leveled the city and killed thousands of people.
“When he was 97 years-old he had a heart attack and drove himself to the emergency room,” he said. “They finally took away his drivers license at 99 years-old.”
Garcia was a big-time influence on Montoya. His example of duty and service was the reason he joined the Army. When Montoya graduated from BYU’s ROTC program he had his grandfather pin the bars on his uniform.
“I was proud to have him at the ceremony,” he said. “I still want to live up to his expectations.”
After serving in the U.S. Army for four years, Montoya went to work for the FBI for 25 years and retired in 2016. He currently lives near his grandfather in Providence.
According to WWII Veterans Affairs, there are an estimated 325,574 veterans still alive of the estimated 16 million men and women who served in the war.
Garcia is considered one of the Greatest Generation, or the WWII generation, born between 1901 and 1927 that lived through the Great Depression and participated in the Second World War. That generation wanted to create economic growth and development, enable people to advance themselves and end poverty, according to Harvey J. Kaye a historian and sociologist.