It was Christmas Eve 1944, and Manuel Encinas, a U.S. Army soldier, was on a reconnaissance mission.
The Arizona native was assigned to a half-track with the 4th Armored Division, Third Army. Gen. George Patton was his commander. Encinas was in Belgium, near a small town called Bastogne.
“Our job was to find the enemy,” said Encinas.
He and his sergeant were moving up a hill when shooting began. He remembers the weather was miserably cold. Snow covered the ground all around. A thick cloud bank made the day colder and heavier.
In the riot of bullets slinging through the frozen air, Encinas felt the heat of a single projectile piercing his steel helmet. It missed sinking into his head by — what? an inch? But shrapnel had embedded in his scalp.
“It hurt bad,” said the 91-year-old World War II veteran of the Battle of the Bulge.
Encinas spoke with some difficulty. He has difficult-to-erase memories that leave him quiet and reluctant to speak of them. Encinas also is battling Parkinson’s disease and other physical ailments.
Despite it all, Encinas shared with me, and his wife and son, a few recollections of his nearly two-year hitch with the Army that took him from his Arivaca home to Europe.
“Very seldom does he talk about the war,” said Aurora Encinas, his wife of 19 years.
His son, Carlos Encinas, a retired teacher from Sam Hughes Elementary School, was video recording my conversation with his dad. “He’s saying things I haven’t heard before,” said Carlos.
Encinas invited me into his west-side home, in the El Rio barrio, across from the Santa Cruz River and its bike and walking path that he and his wife used to enjoy. These days the retired railroad worker sits at home or visits his doctor.
He was nattily dressed for my visit. He wore a tie. Their living room is chock full of family photographs and religious and non-religious images.
Encinas joked, smiled and at times turned somber while he talked. The memories of the war are not that distant.
He grew up on a ranch, called La Calera, in Arivaca, south of Tucson. He attended the old Sopori Elementary School. He was 20 years old when his draft order arrived in 1942. He wanted to leave Arivaca.
“The girls that lived there were too ugly,” he said with a strong chuckle.
Like most young men at that time, he wanted to serve in the “Good War.” And even though Encinas faced discrimination in Southern Arizona as a Mexican-American, he felt a duty to serve his country. His two younger brothers would also serve in the armed forces.
From Tucson, Encinas went to Phoenix and into uniform. Assigned to Patton’s armored Army, Encinas trained in the Southern California deserts. In December 1943, he was on a convoy to England.
“On the second day the convoy was attacked by German submarines,” he recalled. He didn’t remember if any ships or men were lost. In England, he trained more, and waited and waited. It was a matter of time before they could cross the Channel.
In July, about a month after D-Day, June 6, Encinas landed in France. The reality of war revealed itself.
“This isn’t training. This is the real thing,” he recalled thinking to himself as he waded to shore still strewn with dead soldiers.
Once in France, Patton’s Army rolled across the rivers, through towns and hedgerows, pushing back German soldiers. Death was always present. But it wasn’t always soldiers.
Encinas recounted the tragic day when he killed a French boy who startled him in a village. Clearly it was hard for him to talk about it. His wife said he still has nightmares about the boy.
Encinas not only escaped death near Bastogne, but he told of a time he was resting under a tree as shells safely fell in the distance. Except for one. It screamed overhead and shaved his resting tree.
Some memories were humorous, like the time he and some penniless buddies got lost in Paris while on leave. “Eventually we gave ourselves up to the MPs.” Another time while on leave he ate a half-gallon of ice cream and promptly became ill.
For him, the end of the war came when his division met Russian soldiers in Czechoslovakia. He returned to Tucson and worked for Southern Pacific Railroad for nearly 40 years.
His war battles are long in the past. He said his biggest battle today is with his health.
Before I left him and his family, I thanked him.
Monday is the day to thank all veterans.