I often tell people, when I describe my genealogy research, how incredibly ignorant I feel about my knowledge of history – or lack thereof. World history. New Mexico history. My own family history. But I’ve convinced myself that it’s never too late to learn – and appreciate – that history.
I went with my dad this week to see a special flag. Well, the flag itself isn’t so special because it represented a truly horrific period in our history. This particular flag was special because of the signatures of the soldiers who fought and sacrificed to capture it. Three of those soldiers were my great-uncles, including Eloy Gallegos, my Grandpa Carlos’ brother and whose name was passed on to my father and me – as our middle name. Their oldest brother, Clemente Gallegos, also signed the flag; so did Tony DeTevis, Jr., my Grandma Rise’s older brother.
My Grandpa Carlos was not with his brothers and the rest of the 120th Combat Engineer Battalion, Company C, when they captured the enemy Nazi flag at the end of July 1943, after heavy fighting at Messina, Sicily. Grandpa Carlos, who originally went with his brothers to North Africa, was sent back to Oregon to attend officer training school. He rejoined Company C sometime after the flag was captured and signed by dozens of soldiers.
The story of the Company C of the 120th Combat Engineer Battalion, which was attached to the 45th Division, is compelling. It was beautifully told in 2008 by Maurilio E. Vigil, a retired Highlands University professor, in a special newspaper section of the Las Vegas Optic. That newspaper article led me to my journey with my dad to the Albuquerque Museum, where the Nazi flag captured by Company C nearly 70 years ago, is now stored.
The flag is large. A surprisingly fragile-looking white circle with the black swastika is stitched in the middle of a sea of red fabric. A piece of the white fabric is torn, which was apparently ripped when the soldiers first captured it. Most of the soldiers signed their names and home towns in black ink on the white background. Some, like my Uncle Eloy, signed with white ink on the black swastika.
The fact that members of 45th Division, known as the Thunderbirds, signed their names on and around a swastika is ironic. The Division started as a National Guard unit with members from Oklahoma, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico. For the first 15 years of its existence, the 45th used the swastika as its insignia, worn as a patch on each soldier’s left shoulder, according to an account by Brigadier General Ross H. Routh (Ret.) The symbol was considered good luck, because of its significance to Native Americans, particular the Navajo. But the Division abandoned the symbol in the 1930s because of its association with Nazi Germany. After soliciting hundreds of ideas for a new insignia, a Board of Officers settled on the Thunderbird as the replacement for the swastika. The Board kept the original yellow and red colors, which represent the Spanish heritage of many of the soldiers in the 45th. The Board also kept the four-sided patch to represent the four states from which most of the soldiers came. The War Department approved the new Thunderbird insignia, also an American Indian symbol, which signifies a “sacred bearer of happiness unlimited.”
The 45th was activated for federal service in 1940. The Division deployed on June 8, 1943 and arrived in Oran, Algeria, North Africa on July 1, according to the newspaper account by Maurilio E. Vigil. The Company moved to the Arzew area of French Morocco, which was used as a staging area, and on July 10, 1943, the 45th engaged in the first major invasion near Scoglitti, Sicily, as part of Operation Husky.
As a combat engineer battalion, Company C had the dangerous job of clearing mine fields, and repairing and rebuilding bridges that were destroyed by retreating German forces. The 45th Division made four amphibious landings – three in Italy and one in France. Combat engineers from Company C typically went ashore first to clear the beaches for infantry units.
On July 26, the 45th Division reached Motta Hill 26. Following four days of intense fighting, they secured victory at the Battle of Bloody Ridge. Soon after, the troops captured the German flag at Messina, Sicily.
My Great-Uncles Eloy, Clemente and Tony all signed the flag, all proud natives of Las Vegas, New Mexico. As the Thunderbirds pressed forward to conquer Sicily and move to mainland Italy, Sgt. Eloy Gallegos, who joined the National Guard unit at the age of 18, was declared to be missing in action. On Sept. 10, 1943, just two months into the war, my Great-Grandparents, Luis and Victoria Gallegos, were notified by the War Department that their son was killed in action. The Las Vegas Daily Optic reported that the American flag at Las Vegas High School was flying at half-mast in honor of Sgt. Eloy Gallegos, who attended the school and whose father was a longtime custodian at the school.
After Eloy’s death, my Grandpa Carlos Gallegos returned to Company C in Italy, and remained, along with his older brother Clemente, for the remainder of the war as the Thunderbirds drove through Italy, France and ultimately victory in Germany.
My father, Gilbert Eloy Gallegos, Sr., was born less than a year after his Uncle Eloy’s sacrifice. I was born 25 years later, also inheriting Uncle Eloy’s name. I’m proud share the name of a hero, and I am glad I got to share the visit to the Albuquerque Museum with my Dad, to see the special flag.