Brothers in arms: Grand County family shares letters of WW II veterans
May 27, 2011
Sophia Pacheco had only “pride” when three of her boys served simultaneously in World War II, says daughter Lucille (Pacheco) Mondragon, now 83.
In its fourth generation in Grand County, the Pacheco family now has a long list of members in the military – but Johnny, Armando and Ernest were the very first.
The eldest of the three, Johnny, and the youngest Ernest, were first to volunteer, Lucille said, followed by Armando who “volunteered because the other two had gone.”
“It was hard to see them all go,” said their sister Lucille, who now lives in Albuquerque, N.M.
The three boys were among 13 children of Sophia and Felipe Pacheco, who moved to Grand County from the San Luis Valley in 1929 to homestead on Cottonwood Pass east of Granby, where they made a living raising sheep. Several of the children attended the small Eight Mile School on Cottonwood, which was later moved to the museum in Hot Sulphur Springs.
Although Armando was the most reluctant to go to war, Lucille said, he became the most decorated of the three brothers. His legend continues for nearly being awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, having been nominated in 2007 – one year prior to his death – for his brave service on one particular battlefield in 1944, Germany.
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Armando served in Company G, 310th Infantry Regiment, 18th Infantry Division, when he was credited for saving his entire division by recognizing the hayfield they were about to cross “had too many haystacks,” recounted Armando’s nephew Dave Cautrell, of Granby. The young soldier was suspicious of the haystacks – having seen enough of them growing up in the ranching community of Grand County – so he alerted the division’s colonel.
But the colonel dismissed the information. So Armando took a risk and went against the colonel’s orders, Cautrell said. He shot into one haystack and it started exploding.
The haystack turned out to be a large wire cage full of artillery and the enemy. The division then “leveled every one of those haystacks, and not one American soldier was killed,” Cautrell said.
After the battle, the colonel reportedly saluted Armando and told him he “was sure glad he went against his orders,” Cautrell said, “and the chaplain made the sign of the cross on his forehead to bless him.”
Armando had fought in every invasion of WWII except Normandy and, at the end of his military career, had amassed an impressive number of medals, including: two Bronze Star Medals for “heroic achievement in connection with military operations” in Katzwinkel, Germany in 1945; four Battle Stars, a Good Conduct Medal, Victory Medal and a European Medal. He was honorably discharged in 1946.
Like his brothers, Armando was known to be a jokester. During his service, he would trade counterfeit cigarettes to buy silk stockings to give to attractive German “frauleins.” He would fill empty cigarette cartons with wooden sticks, his nephew said, then line the inside of the packages with toilet paper to make the cartons feel like real packs. His military-police comrades would then confiscate the cartons after the trade, so Armando never got caught and was able to repeat the scam over and over.
That’s not to say Armando was immune to the tragedies of war, “But he never talked about the war,” Cautrell said, “because there were some things he wanted to forget.”
Armando once wrote home that he felt sorry for all the German prisoners of war that were at the Fraser POW Camp, “that when they would go home back to Germany, their country would be full of craters and buildings all in ruins. That they’d have to build a country all over again,” Cautrell said.
Perhaps Armando’s most difficult time during the war was when he received a letter from home in October of 1945. He was 19 years old.
The letter informed him that his brother Ernest, 23, had died; brother Johnny, 32, who served as a medic overseas throughout the war until honorably discharged in 1946, received the same letter.
Their brother had been fatally injured in an automobile accident while visiting home on a 45-day furlough after having spent four years of service, three of which were overseas, serving as a fighter pilot in the Air Corps of the Army.
Back home riding in the car with his girlfriend, who survived the crash, Sgt. Ernest Pacheco had been thrown from the vehicle when it slid on ice and rolled near the Vasquez Creek bridge near then-Hideaway Park. Ernest had died in the Fritzsimons military hospital in Denver. On the day of his death, Sophia received a Western Union telegram from the U.S. Army, saying her son was due back to Fort Logan. “Continued absence may result in his conviction of desertion with consequent penalties End,” the correspondence reads.
Ernest’s body was escorted home from Denver by military personnel who were stationed at the Fraser POW Camp.
Because mom Sophia was fully blind, Lucille had written the letters to her soldier brothers: “I will tell you that we lost our dear brother,” she wrote. “This is something that is hard to take, but God is above us, and seems like things like this have to happen in life as we go through. But all we can do is pray for him. We are closer to him now than we were before because we’ll all be with him someday.”
After the war, both Johnny and Armando returned home safely and lived out their lives in Grand County, both working on water infrastructure projects for the Colorado-Big Thompson Project and Denver Water, and raising families. Armando eventually worked for the Colorado Department of Transportation for 28 years; Johnny worked to install infrastructure for the Henderson Mill. Johnny died in 1999 at the age of 86.
Ironically, their brother Ernest had longed of being home again – for reasons that still speak volumes today. While he had been stationed in Italy in April of 1944, Ernest had written a powerful letter home to his mother:
“I pray for the day to come that they’ll deliver us from evil – to bring me home again to you,” the letter reads. “Home, where I want unchanged, just as I remember them now, all things I hold dear.
“The right of a man to think and speak his thoughts, the right of a man to live and worship as he wants, and the right of a man to work and earn a just reward. Don’t ever let those things be lost. Keep everything as it is until I come back – to America, where no armed guards bar the door to liberty, where there will never be barbed wire fence between man and his opportunity to work and build and grow and make life worth living.”
Having enlisted in the military during the Vietnam era with Johnny’s son John Jr. (Sonny), before being discharged for medical reasons, Cautrell reflected on these words recently. This time for another generation, when war has not yet escaped America’s reach.
“Ernie said it for all the soldiers,” Cautrell said, “of all war.”
– Tonya Bina can be reached at 970-887-3334 ext.19603.