Niconas Nanez was drafted into the Army at the age of nineteen, leaving behind his mother who had raised him alone. He had worked hard to support both of them, having to drop out of school to help earn money. While in the military, he had the opportunity to help Korean children living in poor conditions, something that reminded him of his own childhood. Serving as a Combat Engineer, he spent time building bridges, which was also a dangerous assignments as mines would often explode. He recalls that when he came back from Korea, he did not receive a warm welcome because many people did not even know where he had been- he now makes sure that soldiers today do not experience that same feeling. Niconas Nanez is extremely proud of his service and how he was able to help others.
Helping the Children
Niconas Nanez says that he will always remember the kids. He never wants any other child to have to go through what they went through. He used to buy them food to assist them because he remembers suffering when he was a small child.
A dangerous Job
Although he didn't see combat, Niconas Nanez explains job was dangerous. Mines could explode if they weren't careful. He recalls praying to God even though others made fun of him. He admits to crying at times. However, he says he is very proud of his service and being able to help the people of Korea.
Returning Soldiers Not Appreciated
Niconas Nanez says when he returned home, many people did not even know where he had been. He remembers that people did not know much about the war, some did not even know there was a war in Korea. He says they were not welcomed or recognized, so today he helps welcome home soldiers.
Nicolas Nanez Interview Transcript by Grace Pfohl
Nicolas: My name is Niconas Nanez
Interviewer: Will you spell that for me?
Nicolas: N-A-N-E-Z is the last name. The first one is Niconas
Interviewer: Uh Huh. How do you spell that?
Niconas: N-I-C-O-N-A-S, junior
Interviewer: OK, and where were you born?
Niconas: I was born in a small town by the name of Ensinar about 28 miles from here in Laredo
Interviewer: Where did you graduate from?
Niconas: When I went, when we got here from Laredo, I went to central school which doesn’t exist anymore ——– and I went to Morton High School. I did not graduate from Morton High School because I remember I was a sophomore and I had to quit school to help my mother for a little bit, and after that I went back to school and that is when the draft got me. I was a junior in Morton High.
Interviewer: And How old were you?
Niconas: I was 19 years old, it was going to be 19 years old
Interviewer: So you’re drafted into the–
Niconas: Um Hmm
Interviewer: So what was your impression, what was the first thing that went through your mind when you heard you were going to be drafted.]
Niconas: Well actually, it was kind of hard for me, you know, when I got drafted because it was only my mother and me and I had to leave her all alone. My grandmother had already died. And one of my uncles had said well lets let your mother live with us, but she didn’t want to live with anyone. We had to rent the house. What I did when I was there, they used to send pension to her, but when they used to pay me in Korea there was no place to spend the money or things to buy with it and send to her. She was a lady that, she cared about me. She used to say [cries], and when I came back my uncle got married to a lady from Laredo and they had a kid and I told him instead of a little kid, send him out here, and we’ll take care of her. So we got a job, I used to work with the theaters, Racer Theaters. I started working in the theaters being an usher taking people to sit down in the seats. But I went into the service and the manager told me, whenever you come back you’ll have your job right here. All of the sudden I received a letter from my boss that said I’ve got your mother living here, she is living with my wife, don’t worry about her.
Interviewer: Where did you do your basic training at after you were drafted?
Noconas: We went from here to San Antonio and from San Antonio they sent us to Fort Hood, Texas. For the snakes was crawling around there.
Niconas: Yeah. We were taken to basic training. There in Fort Hood we finished the training and I was glad because out here in Laredo when I was in high school, I took ROTC. They tought me quite some things that they want and everything like that. And I was glad that I had joined ROTC at Morton High because the Colonel we had out here gave us the M1 rifle and I used to assemble and disassemble the rifle in three or four minutes.
Interviewer: Wow. Impressive.
Niconas: When I got the training in Fort Hood, they gave us a carbine. a small carbine. So I took the training. When we got to Korea, when we got to Washington, they came out with the M1 and I said this was my defense. I knew everything about the M1. We even had guys that didn’t know what an M1 was. SO they got me and about three or four people and I had to teach them how to use the M1 and disassemble it and clean it and everything. Three weeks being in Korea I got my first stripe for teaching the guys about the M1.
Interviewer: Wow. Congratulations, that’s exciting.
Niconas: The first scare I got in Korea was too close to the company.
Interviewer: Well first, when did you find out you were going to Korea?
NIconas: Well that was when I was, when we ran into the camp at Fort Hood, the commander salled me and said, ‘I’ve got a letter right here from your mother that you are the only son she got and she seemed to me asking me if she could do something that you would get out of the service’. I told him well it may be what she wants but I want to serve my country. He said well this is what I’m going to do: you are just going to serve in the states, you are not going overseas. Well when the list came out I was the second one on the list to go to Korea.
Interviewer: Oh my goodness. So definitely not as you were told.
Niconas: I didn’t say anything until we were almost in Washington and the Colonel said you’re not supposed to be here. I said, ‘Don’t say anything. I would like to serve my country in the way they have served me. The way I hear about this country we are going to, these people are suffering. I said to myself I’ve been waiting help these people, but the way that my family had treated me. That was why I went to Korea.
Interviewer: So you knew there was a war going on. Did you know there was prior to being drafted?
Interviewer: DId you know there was a war going on?
Niconas: Yes, Ma’am. I knew there was something going on. They
Interviewer: And when were you drafted again?
Niconas: March 22, 1951
Interviewer: Had you ever heard of Korea before this?
Niconas: No, I had never heard of it. I’m proud to serve the people and give them the right that they had lost out.
Interviewer: Well I know for a fact that they thank you guys for what ya’ll did over there, and I know I thank you as well. So whenever you went to Korea, how did you get there? Did you go to by ship or did you fly?
Niconas: We went by ship.
Interviewer: You went by ship. How long did it take you guys to get there?
Niconas: It took us about 10 days to get out there
Interviewer: And where did you land?
Niconas: We landed at the —- 1 area. When we went to Korea we went to Seoul, but then they shipped us out to the to the field. From there on I didn;t know anything about the towns or anything. It was just playing on the field.
Interviewer:And while you were in Korea, where you still a PFC at this time?
Niconas: The PFC? I got in right when I got to Korea.
Interviewer: Oh. You got it right when you got to Korea?
NIconas: For teaching the guys how to use the M1.
Interviewer: So that was your specialty and your rank while in Korea
Niconas: Yeah, I wanted to make corporal but it was a little late.
Interviewer: How much did you make as a PFC?
Interviewer: How much money were you making a PFC?
Niconas: Well I was making one hundred and something dollars per month.
Interviewer: And most of that was being sent back to your mother.
Niconas: Yeah, and the government was sending my mother about 230 dollars and the money I got, about half of it I sent to my mother. Because there was one thing that I always remember about the kids. I didn’t want anything that happened in Korea to come to our states. I would see kids eating out of the cans we leftover. Kids would go out there and would wonder what’s out there. What I used to do, I used to buy, they used to send a small a poster that said — or something like that. With the money I had left I would but them and the food I used to carry, I would give to the kids to eat the food that they would serve us. I would eat weiners or something else for breakfast. I remember when I —-.
Interviewer: So tell me a little bit more about your duty while you were in Korea.
Niconas: Well in Korea I was an engineer. A combat engineer. We used to be —- and —- the infantry would go buy and every time we used to move we didn’t get a —– they got me to put mines around the area or the company so if the enemy would come in-
Interviewer: And if they did you would hear it?
Niconas: That was what I was afraid of because usually in the cold days, we used to go to war, I would see one of my fellows and I would tell him don’t move, what’s wrong with you? I don’t want to scare you, but let me see if I can get you out of there. Because he was standing on the mine, and I had to get someone else to get him help because I couldn’t get him up. I don’t want him to put some weight on the mine. When we got home from Korea he thanked me for saving his life. We used to get up in the morning and go to breakfast and then go to the field and do our job. We used to build bridges and everything. One thing was, I wasn’t the person on the front line, but I was under enemy fire every day. We were walking and we would hear the artillery, mortars and everything like that. Usually it would take a day to dig a hole, because they wouldn’t let us work, we working at —- and the mortars and artillery and we would hide.
Interviewer: So your job was pretty dangerous then. Tell us about some dangerous or difficult situations that you encountered. Besides rescuing people from the mines.
Niconas: When we were working there, I tell you all those artillery coming in, I was afraid. I would think about it, Mary Mother from Mexico who is a saint from Guadelupe. I would just say, just try to help me live and go back to my mom. When I came in, I went straight to Mexico City to visit the saint.I gave them everything I had, decorations and everything. I didn’t want anything. It was kind of hard in Korea, with the weather, and the winter, and the snow would come up almost to the knee and during the rainy season we used to get up and build our bunkers on the top of the hill. Because if it was laying back there, the water wouldn’t let you walk
Interviewer: So how many people would be in a bunker?
Niconas: We had about 8 or 12 or something like that. And we used to live in tents because we were about two or three blocks from the front line. We used to live in tents and one man per night, we would get some stoves and put gas on the stoves so we wouldn’t get frozen. The time I got sick, when I got there they seemed to not know anything about the cold weather. We had some people that got frostbite.
Interviewer: Were you ever wounded?
Interviewer: Did you ever encounter some form of combat?
Niconas: No, I never fought anything, but I was under fire every day. One thing I remember about my friend, we came back from the line and we were training, getting back to training, and the sergeant, my sergeant, he got his, we used to work in the mines. He was teaching us how to disassemble the mine and when it blew up, it took two fingers out of him. So I had to take over the squad.
INterviewer: How many people were in the squad?
Niconas: About twelve
Interviewer: So what was your impression of Korea at this time?
Niconas:At that time I thought it poor people. But when we were on the boat, we were just joking that and everything. When the boat put us where they land you on the ground, I saw those boats, I saw those jets going, and I thought, wow it is something real out here. And I remember at night the infantry used to hit a big light to where they could bomb out there and everyday at 6 o’clock, 6, 7 o’clock, here comes the lady, Nurse Baker, ‘So when are you suffering out there? Why aren’t you comfortable? We’ve got some good food here and everything, until one day I told one of them, ‘Cut the tongue off that lady, so she could not talk some more’. I mean some people would try to go out there and they thought she was saying the right thing and I told him, ‘told you to stay out of it. Don’t get excited about it. Anyway when you go back to your state, you’ll see some women there.
INterviewer: So, were you able to keep in contact with your mother pretty easily, through letters or phone calls or anything?
Niconas: No, we used to write a letter to her, so she wouldn’t keep on thinking about what was going on. Every ten days I used to write a letter and send it to her, because I had time at night and every week she would get two or three letters. Not today, today you can get in touch with your family and everything, but then we didn’t get any communication like this.
INterviewer: How were your relationships with the other troops or foreign troops,”Rocks”, like the Korean soldiers?
Niconas: It was alright. We’d do to get along, I remember my division, there was three regimens, the 15th, the 7th, and I don’t remember the other one. I was in the 15th regimen. One night they sent me to, with an officer to the 7th regimine, and it was the Puerto Ricans, so I could speak Spanish, they sent me as an interpreter there. We’d make out what we were going to do and everything and the next morning they made me interpret and I saw the 15th regiment, they had been hit at night just because of one guard. A lot of people died at that one, and I said to myself, poor guys, I would think about their families, how they would react, and I remember one day when I was standing guard and I thank this poor guy, I don’t remember his name, but I was coming off guard duty and he was coming to relieve me, it there was a North Korean, “Help, Help, Help”, and this guy called, “Nico hit the ground!”. As soon as I hit the ground, I went like that and he had something behind his back, BOOM, three or four hits came and if I hadn’t met that guy, he saved my life because I didn’t know what was going on.I didn’t expect the Korean. As soon as he got down, it went off.
Interviewer:The North Korean was screaming help?
Niconas: The North Korean, he was the one who needed help.
Interviewer: It was just a trap?
Niconas: It was a trap.
Interviewer: So tell me more about your responsibilities, you were a combat engineer, you would build bridges and lay mines out. Was building bridges difficult? Was it dangerous?
Niconas: Yeah, it was kind of dangerous, I mean, with the mines, because if you missed something it would go off, you would lose your life out there. And I used to, at night, I’m going to tell you the way I was, I did pray at night. Prayed god help me, tomorrow we don’t know what is coming up, not just me but all of my fellows in the company. And guys would make fun of me, I said you Catholic guys, just think about god, I didn’t know about their religion or something else. But I always though about god out there. I would thank my mother for taking care of me the way she did. When I went into the service, I’m going to tell you, I did cry because I was leaving her. I said I don’t know what is going to happen to her, I won’t be able to come or anything. But god help us save a country that needed help. I’m proud to have served there. The people that are there. They didn’t want to let communists into that country.
Interviewer: Would you say that basic training prepared you for what you would encounter in Korea?
Niconas: No, they were just in a hurry, I guess. We were the first batch from Moredo. It was six weeks training and then they put me working in a warehouse where they served the food. They knew I knew something about math, I had to work it out since so many dozens of eggs to serve and so many to the other one. They put me in charge of the warehouse, and the people that were there working with me when I left the warehouse they were like, we don’t want you to leave because there is nobody else out here that treats us like you do. On Saturdays, make it Friday nights I used to tell them some to get some gallons, five gallons, and do some lemonade because Monday we come in, some of you would like to work out here. We used to leave the lemonade out their in the refrigerator, and on Monday when we came it it was ready for us, taking care of—-, and drinking beer out there.
Interviewer: So have you been back to Korea?
Niconas: No, I haven’t.
Interviewer: So, how long were you actually in Korea?
Niconas: It was a year and one month and one day.
Interviewer: It was a year and one month and one day.
Niconas: Yes, so actually at that time, we used to go by points. It used to be four points per month. When my time was to come back here to the states, they said, we have nobody here to replace you. So I had to wait a year, and the time to be serving over there was three or four months, so I had to go ten more months, but they could find no replacement.
Interviewer: So, when you finally got the word that you were able to go home, what was that feeling?
Niconas: It was one of my happiest days. I remember Sergeant Martinez, one of my first Sergeants, he said you have only have two months or one month left, I want to take you off of the line and leave you out here with the Korean people to work making their camouflage mat. Sometimes I used to scared, they would start talking, [undecipherable sounds], and I said, are they going to have a fight or something? I used to get my M1 ready and I would go out and they would be like [laughing].
Interviewer: So what do you think is the legacy of Korean war veterans? What is remembered? What is it that they carry with them, from the Korean war or even the legacy of the Korean war?
Niconas: Well actually we have an organization out here that when we get together, I try to get out of the conversation. Because when they start talking about Korea, I better get out of here because there is a war going on out here. I did this and I did this, and I told them, I don’t like to remember bad things.
Interviewer: Did you talk about your experience after you returned home?
Niconas: Yes, I did.
Interviewer: You talked to like your mom about it, what you had gone through.
Niconas: Yes, I talked to my uncles and everything, and it is like my daughters right now, they make me, anything that’s got to do with the war, they make me talk about and everything. And say it right now so you can remember your days. I don’t want to remember. When I came back people didn’t know anything about the Korean War. I remember one day we went to —–’s Plaza, and we were sitting down out there, and a guy said, where have you been? We haven’t seen you for a long time? I told him I was in Korea and he said, “Where is that? What happened out there?” I told him there is a war going on and he said, “We didn’t know anything about it. When we came back to the states, we never got recognized, I mean nobody knew anything about anything. Like today, when a soldier comes home, we as a nation go and receive him home and everything like that. But most people didn’t know what was going on.
Interviewer: So, technically we are still in a war. When the armistice was signed, it was technically just a ceasefire. What do you think in your opinion we need to do to put a closure on it?
Niconas: Well, actually it has been going on for a long time. I mean those people in North Korea are just broken. In trying to make things go and go and go.
Interviewer: Would you support a reunification of North and South Korea if it were possible?
Interviewer: Yeah? And do you think it is important for younger generations to know the sacrifices that were made in Korea?
Niconas: Oh, yes ma’am. When we got lots of people dead, especially the infantrymen, we sacrificed and everything.
Interviewer: Why do you think it is so important for them to understand, to know?’
Niconas: Well, it’s important because we were out there and we didn’t know anything and when we got there it was different from what we have out here. We learned something different from the people and everything like that.
Interviewer: Well sir, is there anything else that you would like to share that kind of concludes the questions I have for you?
Niconas: One thing I got about the Korean people, I really appreciate them, whenever they need me, they call me and say thanks for saving our country. They’re doing the job.
Interviewer: They are very humble people. Very grateful.
Noconas: Like this Korean War organization out here, Every year they give us one supper and invite us, invite is as if we are a family