CENTER FOR U.S. WAR
VETERANS' ORAL HISTORIES
World War II
Cambell Gonzalez was born in Tampa, Florida, in 1918. Prior to World War II, Gonzalez worked at an icebox distributor in his hometown. He recalled that the ongoing war in Europe was hardly ever discussed in his family. Gonzalez had thought about joining the military in hopes of better pay and a chance to advance his education.
Gonzalez was drafted into the army in June 1941, during the peacetime draft that had been established in September 1940. He completed basic training at Fort Wheeler, Georgia and was assigned to the Camp’s band. In May 1942, Gonzalez attended Officer Candidate School at Fort Wheeler for thirteen weeks; and, on completion of the course, he was commissioned a second lieutenant.
Following graduation from OCS, Gonzalez was assigned to the 366th Infantry Regiment, located at Fort Devens, Massachusetts. The 366th was composed of African-American soldiers, as the army was segregated at the time. He was subsequently reassigned to the 372nd Infantry Regiment, another African-American unit, which was stationed in the New York City metropolitan Area. The 372nd was tasked with guarding Penn Station and various critical communication centers in the New York/New Jersey area, the major bridges in New York City, as well as they received tactical training at Fort Dix, New Jersey.
Following duty with the 372nd, Gonzalez was reassigned to the 365th Infantry Regiment, a component unit of the 92nd Infantry Division, an all African-American division, save for some white senior officers. The 92nd had adopted the nickname “Buffalo Soldiers” a term allegedly used by Native Americans to distinguish African-American soldiers on the nineteenth century frontier.
After a period of training, the 92nd was transported to the Mediterranean theatre of war to take part in the Italian campaign. Gonzalez recalled his trip across the Atlantic as nerve-wracking, due to constant danger from German U-boats, with sea-sickness a far less critical, but also worrisome problem. On arrival in Italy, his first job was retraining some “misfits” from basic training to turn them into competent soldiers. Once that task was accomplished, Gonzalez’s unit was assigned to regular patrols along the frontlines, and then an advance upon the enemy. German minefields were everywhere, and the mountainous terrain made for difficult combat conditions.
Gonzalez recalled fighting on a hilltop the day after Christmas, 1944. The battle lasted all day, and the top of his jacket was shredded by machine gunfire. He was able to react in time and shoot the attacker; for years after the war, he wondered if he had killed that enemy soldier or not. After some initial setbacks, the 92nd Division broke through the German “Gothic Line,” losing 2,848 men killed, wounded or captured, and capturing 24,000 enemy soldiers
One of Gonzalez’s jobs in the closing days of the war was to guard prisoner of war camps. He said he had to “keep an eye on the German officers, who would steal from the regular soldiers.” Gonzalez also worked with a Yugoslavian named Sergio, who excelled at locating grenades and mines in the dark, and whose efforts saved many lives. Gonzalez experienced his first and only encounter with Soviets during this time as well, who were transporting German prisoners from Yugoslavia.
Gonzalez mentioned that he had little interaction with any of our allies in Italy, noting that if the British were in town you would hardly notice them, unlike the United States soldiers, “who stood out like a sore thumb.” In response to a question on his diet while in the service, he responded that he did not like it at all, as it was all “SPAM and canned fruits and vegetables” and he promised himself that he would never eat that kind of food again once the war was over.
Lieutenant Cambell Gonzalez remained in Italy until November 1945. When he returned to the United States, he experienced the harsh reality of living here as a person of color in those days — despite being an army officer, he still had to use segregated bathrooms. Gonzalez was, however, glad to be home and out of the army. He availed himself of the opportunity to attend school with the help of the G.I. Bill, which paid his tuition and provided an allowance for additional expenses. Gonzalez never regretted his service, as it gave him an opportunity to see the world. He eventually traveled to and worked in New York and Washington D.C., as well as he returned to Italy as both a tourist and a student of Italian public transportation systems.
Cambell Gonzalez was awarded the Combat Infantryman Badge, Purple Heart, American Theater, European-African-Middle-Eastern Theater and World War II Victory Medals for his participation in World War II.