102-year-old grandma's courageous WWII past revealed
BY DAVID BEGNAUD
UPDATED ON: JULY 13, 2022 / 12:26 PM / CBS NEWS
Crescencia Joyce Garcia, born in Puerto Rico in 1920, was sent to live with her godmother because her mother could not afford to raise three children. Crescencia had two siblings: her sister, Modesta, and her brother, Alejandro. Her father, Romualdo Garcia, was not married to her mother, Alejandrina Melendez. He was a penniless drunkard who eventually gave his three illegitimate children little more than his last name.
Crescencia graduated from the 8th grade in Puerto Rico while she still under the care of her godmother. She wanted to go to high school, but her godmother did not see the merit in getting an education; she was an illiterate housewife who raised pigs for slaughter to make money. Determined to pursue her education, Crescencia went to live with her mother and her siblings in San Juan. Though she did attend high school for two years, she had to drop out at the age of 18 because her mother could not afford to keep her there. She considered going to nursing school, but her mother could not afford that either. Wanting to get her family out of the poverty of 1930s Puerto Rico, she was advised by a neighbor to go to New York City – there she might find a job and make some good money. On the boat to New York, she met a merchant marine who had a sister named Candita already living in the Bronx, NY. She moved in with Candita, who helped her find a job working in a local sewing factory. Eventually she learned to work a machine making buttonholes. With the money from this job, she was able to get her family out of Puerto Rico and into an apartment in the Bronx while she continued to stay with Candita.
Crescencia, reasoning that she would rather wash wounded soldiers than dishes, applied to a nursing school at the original Lincoln Hospital in the Bronx, but was turned away because she did not have enough of an education. She did, however, get a job working as an orderly there. She didn’t earn any credits but she did earn some more money to supplement her income at the factory. Even as an orderly, she was able to learn some of the nursing skills that would serve her later.
The attack on Pearl Harbor led her to join the army, hoping to serve her country in its hour of need, but also to better herself and to be able to earn a better living, but it wasn't until 1944 that she did, in fact, join. She was sent to Des Moines, Iowa for basic training. She was assigned to an all black regiment. After basic, she was sent to Midland, Texas, training under nurses and becoming a Medic. Her experiences in Texas, however, were the most bitter of her life. Before then, she had never considered herself of a different color than anyone else. In Texas she was caught in between black and white: she was not white (because of her skin color she was considered black by white army personnel), but neither was she black enough to fit in with the other African-American servicemen and women. Spanish was her first language, and her connection to the continental United States (that had so thoroughly shaped the struggles of the other servicemen and women of color) was contingent at best. She was told to “go with the flow” and accept her segregated status. During the winter months, when the sun was not a factor, her skin tone was even lighter, and though she sometimes felt excluded by the other people of color for this reason, she was regarded just the same as any black woman by the whites. After her training in Texas she was sent overseas to England. Her outfit landed in Liverpool and she was picked to stay in England to work at a hospital outside of London. She worked alongside the British nurses as an aide taking care of the wounded, mostly burned, soldiers. Although she was the only “dark skinned” aide at that hospital, she was not considered Black by the personnel in England – she was considered to be of Hispanic ethnicity due to her lighter skin color, her last name, and her ability to speak Spanish. Needless to say, her experience in England was much more fulfilling. She was able to do the kind of work she’d dreamed of with personnel who didn’t care about her color.
When it was time to go back to the states, she sailed on a ship called the “Arcadia” back to the South. She did not want to leave the army (her mom was getting good money from the army) but she had to leave because there was nothing left for her to do there anymore -- the war being over, there were no more wounded for her to care for. After her discharge, she went back to live with Candita in the Bronx. A lady who lived downstairs took her to find a job sewing in a different factory in the Bronx. By then she knew how to work all the different sewing machines. She was told that the higher paying jobs were downtown in Manhattan. She was taken downtown to a factory. Once there she showed the factory foreman what she could do. He was impressed with her proficiency with all the different machines used in sewing and she was hired. Eventually she started working in a “Union Shop”. She joined the “ILGWU” and started working in a “union” factory, working on all the special sewing machines, and was never without a job.
She did, however, have to give up on her dream of becoming a nurse.