LAS CRUCES, N.M. — Simon Mendoza spent his early 20s digging holes in the ground to hide from enemy fire during World War II, the deadliest international conflict in history. But he never thought he’d make it to his 100th birthday.
Mendoza, of Doña Ana County, New Mexico, did just that on Friday.
Mendoza was born in 1922 in Anthony, New Mexico, the third of 12 children. He started working in the fields at a young age making 10 cents an hour. A friend who lived on a large farm started helping him cultivate his own small garden. It was the many hours spent in the fields where Mendoza said he started learning English.
He said he finished grade school at the age of 16 and started working at a Civilian Conservation Corps Camp in Las Cruces, New Mexico, where he made $20 a month.
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Mendoza was 18 when he met his wife, Josefina, who was a year younger. They married and soon had their first son, Henry, who was only a baby when his father was drafted in 1943 at the age of 19.
In 1944, Mendoza completed various trainings with the U.S. Army before being sent to the Pacific Theatre, along with the 6th Infantry Division. He said interacting with his fellow soldiers in English furthered his grasp on the language.
During the war, Mendoza spent 57 days in the jungles of New Guinea and 112 days in the Philippines.
“I made it for 112 days sleeping in foxholes,” Mendoza said. He added the soldiers had only crackers and cheese at times. “I went in at 160 (pounds). I came out at 116 pounds. Everybody, skinnies.”
The conditions were challenging at the best of times, Mendoza said.
In the Philippines in January 1945, he volunteered to take out a pillbox, or concrete fort dug in the ground, of Japanese snipers who were wounding American soldiers. He crawled 200 yards toward the enemy line with only a few grenades; he pulled the pin and ducked. It was a dangerous mission, but Mendoza was lucky to come away with only scratches on his arms.
He earned a Bronze Star from Gen. Douglas MacArthur for his courageous efforts.
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Mendoza came home to the U.S. four months after WWII ended in August 1945. While he was overseas, he said he and his wife shared letters when they could manage. By the time he returned stateside, his son had grown exponentially.
“While in the war, I didn’t want to get sad. I was just taking care of myself and my squad. Then they say, ‘How come you’re so happy,’” Mendoza said. “Because I don’t want to get killed, and I’m not going to get killed.”
The couple had four more children – Maria Elena “Nena” Lucero, Linda Mendoza, Larry Mendoza and Tina Marie Mendoza.
Mendoza worked long hours on the railroads and then as a foreman in the fields after the war. He started coaching Little League and Pony League after retiring, then Senior League, and local New Mexico teams like the Rincon Cubs and the Hatch Bears. He also umpired for almost a decade.
Mendoza and his wife were married 75 years until her death. Three of the couple’s children have also passed. He said he never expected to make it to 100, especially having lived a physically hard life.
“Maybe 70, 75,” Mendoza said. “I was still working at 75. The last year I worked on farms was 1992. I was working in Garfield.”
Nena and Linda now take turns spending time with their father in his Doña Ana home. He is still quite active in his community.
“My dad is hard-working. He still works hard, wants to work hard,” Nena said. “My dad is brilliant. He’s very, very smart. I’m real proud of him.”
Leah Romero is the trending reporter at the Las Cruces Sun-News and can be reached at LRomero@lcsun-news.com. Follow her on Twitter @rromero_leah.