A young soldier on the battleground pulls his comrade up by the shoulder straps with his left hand, his right firmly clutching his rifle. Two more soldiers lay on the ground nearby, watching for the enemy as another stands and points troops onward.
The scene is depicted in “The Treacherous Crossing,” a new memorial honoring the Men of Company E to be officially unveiled in Downtown on June 30.
Company E was the military’s first and only unit composed entirely of Mexican-Americans — the vast majority from South El Paso. During World War II, the company was at the frontlines of the Rapido River battle in Italy. Most were killed by German troops.
Today, the families of some Company E members are battling the city over whose names should be inscribed on the memorial.
The points of contention include whether the memorial should feature only the names of Company E members who were deployed to Italy and part of the Rapido River battle, and whether the names should replicate those inscribed in another memorial in South Central El Paso.
Ben Fyffe, the city’s managing director of cultural affairs and recreation, said 223 names will be inscribed on the new monument — though not all will be permanently set by the unveiling. It now has 174 names permanently inscribed on it.
“We had specific criteria for the names on this project and the artist worked with credentialed military historians to develop the piece,” Fyffe told El Paso Matters. “At the end, (the Downtown memorial) will have a lot more names than the original.”
Fyffe said the city is ensuring that all names on the memorial at Delta Park are included in the new one Downtown. But because of some supply chain challenges in getting brass and other materials, some names will be placed on the monument temporarily for the ceremony. Fyffe said he couldn’t say how long adding all the names would take.
The unveiling of “The Treacherous Crossing,” a 14-by-8-foot statue by borderland artist Julio Sanchez de Alba, is set for 9 a.m. Thursday, June 30, at Cleveland Square Park, 510 N. Santa Fe St. The piece was originally going to be called “The Insurmountable Task,” but the artist wanted a name more specific to the piece, Fyffe said.
The city planned to unveil the monument on June 2, but moved the event back, posting on social media that “the decision to postpone was made after community feedback of family members unable to attend.”
Retired educator Norma De La Rosa is among those distraught that their loved one’s names were not included in the list of 174 names originally planned for the monument.
Her grandfather, 1st Sgt. Lorenzo M. Luna, trained members of Company E at Camp Bowie in Brownwood, Texas. Luna joined the Texas National Guard in 1931 at the age of 31, said his son, Martin Luna.
“By the time they were called up during the war, he was in his 40s and someone decided my father was too old and had too many children to serve,” said Martin Luna, himself a veteran of the Marine Corps who served in the Korean War.
It’s unclear whether 1st Sgt. Luna voluntarily left or was pulled out of the military. Just as Company E was headed to Europe, he rejoined the service and was assigned to a different unit which fought in New Guinea as part of the Pacific Theater. Back home in El Paso, he worked with a lumber company and the U.S. Postal Service before he died in 1994 at the age of 94.
“We don’t want to diminish the service of others, but we also want to ensure that the original members of Company E are properly honored,” De La Rosa said. “It’s not that they didn’t choose to go to Italy, but that the Army sent them somewhere else.”
First Sgt. Luna’s name is inscribed on the Delta Park memorial but will be only superficially inscribed on the Cleveland Square statue before it’s permanently added.
“After World War II, these guys proved they were just as American as anybody else and many died serving this country,” Martin Luna said.
Company E Memorials
That first memorial, “The Men of Company E,” also by Sanchez de Alba, was unveiled at Delta Park in South Central El Paso in 2008. On one side, the memorial depicts members of Company E trying to cross the Rapido River. The other side lists the names of 142 company members from El Paso.
Many argued the piece needed to have more visibility, and at one point city officials proposed moving it to Downtown.
That city instead opted to commission a second monument as the public art component of the Mexican American Culture Center now under construction next to Cleveland Square.
Fyffe said the city and the artist have talked with the families multiple times in an effort to properly pay tribute to Company E.
“That we have a second memorial shows the city’s commitment to honor this very deserving unit,” he said.
The new $615,000 monument is funded through the Public Art Program that allocates 2% of capital projects costs to public art as well as a $35,000 donation from the nonprofit Community En Accion.
“Public art celebrates what makes El Paso unique, what makes our history and our heritage important,” Fyffe said.
Some Company E family members say the city should have done a better job at the onset to be more inclusive.
“Family members have been sadly neglected, kept waiting needlessly, and put through emotional turmoil in this whole project,” Marc A. Salazar, whose father Gabriel M. Salazar, a member of Company E, has his name inscribed in both monuments, said in a June 21 email to city officials shared with El Paso Matters.
“My father would have wanted all their names on the monument,” Salazar said in a phone interview. “He would have wanted everyone to be honored. They were a brotherhood.”
Gabriel Salazar worked for the U.S. Postal Service for many years after his military service. He died in 2003 at the age of 82.
Alberto Rivas, whose father Ajejandro Rivas served with Company E, said he understands that military rosters change constantly and how pinning a time and a group to honor could be a difficult task.
Still, he said he wishes there would have been more weight placed on input from families.
“I think being very narrow on who’s included is kind of slighting some people,” he said, adding that he was glad to hear the city will be adding more names — including his father’s.
Alejandro Rivas, whose name is included in the Delta sculpture but wasn’t set to be included in the new one, worked with refrigerator door and apparel companies after his military service. He died in 2019 at the age of 97.
“There was such camaraderie among them. They knew each other before joining, went through training together, served together and formed a Company E Club when they came home,” Alberto Rivas said.
The Insurmountable Task
Company E was formed in 1923 as a small Texas National Guard Unit comprising all Mexican-Americans primarily from El Paso’s Segundo Barrio. The company became part of the 2nd Battalion, 141st Regiment, 36th Infantry Division.
In 1941, the 36th Division was sent to Camp Bowie, a new facility in Brownwood, Texas, where the men of Company E were led by Luna — De La Rosa’s grandfather — and Capt. John L. Chapin.
Under Chapin, Company E was sent to Europe in 1943 to help liberate Rome from the Germans.
Company E suffered numerous casualties in various attacks and deaths due to illness. Along the way, the men were replaced by troops — not all of whom were Mexican-American — bolstering the unit to about 160 enlisted men, according to various historical reports cited by Jorge Rodriguez in his 2010 University of Texas at El Paso dissertation, “A History of El Paso ‘s Company E in World War II.”
In January 1944, in what some historians have called an insurmountable task and one of the most controversial battles of WWII, the company was ordered to cross the Rapido River in southern Italy into Nazi territory.
The river — up to 50 feet wide and 15 feet deep — was defended by one of the toughest German units in Italy, the 15th Panzergrenadier Division.
Within two days, German forces killed 2,000 U.S. soldiers as they tried to cross the river, including the majority of Company E.
Fyffe said that’s why “The Treacherous Crossing” will include names of some Company E members who weren’t necessarily from El Paso or Mexican-American but “who nonetheless made the same sacrifice.”
Band of Brothers
After World War II, Company E was assigned to be the new National Guard unit of Corpus Christi.
“No other attempts were ever made by the Texas National Guard to create a unit similar to Company E,” Rodriguez said in his master’s of history dissertation.
“It seemed that there was no longer a need to do so since so many Mexican-Americans had served honorably in integrated units in all branches of the military. Thus, Company E will always be known in history as the first and only distinctly Mexican-American unit to have served in the U.S. Army and military in general.”