by Jim Richardson
WALSENBURG – One of the things that WW II Marine sergeant and combat veteran Frank Vigil of Pueblo is thankful for these days is that our troops overseas are now allowed to rotate back to the States on a comparatively regular basis between deployments.
This is typical of Frank: concern about others instead of himself, one of the common traits among those of the Greatest Generation.
As one of the newest and most distinguished members of Pueblo’s recently sanctioned Marine Corps League, Detachment 1376, Frank, 88, knows something about long deployments in a war zone. He joined the Marine Corps in Walsenburg on Jan. 12, 1942, at the age of 18, only 36 days after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Following boot camp at Camp Pendleton, Calif., he was on a stateside assignment for several months at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyards in Bremerton, Wash. where many of the ships damaged at Pearl Harbor were sent for repairs.
Later that year, he was transferred to an infantry training regiment in San Diego prior to shipping out to the South Pacific combat staging area at Wellington, New Zealand.
He and his fellow Marines learned on the way to Wellington that they were replacements for the casualties of the first major battle of the war on the island of Guadalcanal. It was just the beginning for Frank as he spent the next 35 consecutive months of his four-year hitch deployed in the Pacific with the 2nd Marine Division.
It began with ‘bloody’ Tarawa in the fall of 1943 on through the Northern Mariana Islands of Saipan and Tinian in 1944 and ended with the longest battle of them all, the southern Japanese island of Okinawa, in the spring and summer of 1945.
That deployment in itself was an unusually extensive combat tour for an individual Marine, but Frank may have raised the bar even higher. Frank had seen many of his fellow Marines wounded or killed in action in some of the most brutal battles in the annals of warfare. As years went by, he noticed that quite a few others had been discharged after 12, 18 or 24 months of combat, but he believed that he would be notified when his time came.
He was still on duty in cleanup operations on Okinawa when the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were destroyed by atomic bombs. He was among the troops who were preparing for the invasion of Japan, which was expected to cost many tens of thousands more American lives.
The first bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945. The second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki three days later, and Japan officially surrendered on Sept. 2, 1945.
After their surrender, the sergeant major of Frank’s unit called a formation to announce the names of those eligible for discharge. Again, his name wasn’t called.
He later asked the sergeant major how many points were required to be discharged. After all, the war was over and he had surely earned several campaign ribbons for four island battles leading up to the occupation, and had been in the midst of the action for three years.
The sergeant major told him that 84 points were required, and that he would look at his file and let him know. He later told him he had earned a grand total of 124, a huge number, and 40 more than required. The sergeant major explained that he had not been discharged earlier because he was a regular Marine, a volunteer who had signed up for four years and was ‘in for the duration’ of the war.
Frank realized that he had survived when so many had not. After all, nearly 20,000 Marines had died in the Pacific Theater and more than 67,000 were wounded, according to official records. He said it was the thought of those he had known who wouldn’t be going home that put it all in perspective.
The sergeant major initiated the paperwork for his transfer back to the States to finish his enlistment. He only had two months left to serve to complete his four years. His family hadn’t seen him in nearly four years, since he came home for his father’s funeral in 1942, while still in boot camp.
Before the war his parents, Frilan and Filomena Vigil, owned a prosperous 160-acre dryland farm, plus 2,000 head of sheep. They also acquired 3,000 acres of grazing land west of Walsenburg, located at Silver Mountain below La Veta Pass and north of Bald Mountain. They had also leased another 5,000 acres for grazing north of town, which was owned by the CF & I. Frank described his father as a generous man. “He always gave back to the community,” Frank noted, “which included donating a couple of acres of his farm for a school to be built.”
Frank married a local Huerfano County girl on Aug. 29, 1946. Her name was Florine Tafoya, and he had known her before he enlisted. “She was quite a bit younger than me, maybe 13 or 14 when I left, so by the time I got back, she was still only 17. I had to get her father’s permission to marry her,” he recalled.
He and Florine moved to Pueblo and raised three children, including two sons, Frank Jr. of Denver and Thomas of Pueblo; and one daughter, Mary Jane Cabello, also of Pueblo. It was a marriage that would last for 52 years until Florine’s death in 1998.
Frank has a sister, Ana Mae Cruz, who currently lives in “north Veta” between Walsenburg and La Veta. Frank was employed for 34 years at the CF & I steel mill from 1949 to 1983. He was promoted in 1960 to senior millwright in the locomotive and crane unit, where he remained until he retired.
“I’m no hero,” he emphasized. “I was proud to serve my country. But I would like to hear a Marine band play, and I never have. And I wish I had been able to wear the dress blues Marine uniform, but I couldn’t afford to buy it at the time. And if I hadn’t stayed in Japan after the war was over, I could have been back in the States to celebrate the end of the war with everyone, but by the time I got back in December, I had missed it.”
Not a long list of regrets, nothing that you could call complaints from Frank, it’s not in his nature.
He also commented that he is aware that he and the other declining numbers of WW II veterans are getting to the end stages of life and that he regularly attends church.
One thing that happened at the first meeting he attended of the Marine Corps League of Pueblo caught Frank by surprise. He was sitting quietly at a table in the back, surrounded by fellow Marines, for the first time in many years. When he was introduced to them as a new member and combat veteran of WW II, he was greeted with a rousing standing ovation. Most already knew via the grapevine of his special status and welcomed him accordingly.
Though he missed the stateside victory celebrations back in 1945, the applause of his new fellow Marines was finally a sincere welcome home. And they all hope he will get to hear a Marine band play soon, and maybe even put a new set of dress blues on his bucket list.
There’s no doubt he has earned it all, and then some.
Jim Richardson is the Public Relations Officer for the Marine Corps League, Home of Heroes Detachment 1367 in Pueblo.