A sizable world map hung on the wall of the family’s front room. She stood with her mother, running her finger across the smooth paper, pausing on foreign places with exotic-sounding names. Places she’d never been. Some places she’d never heard of. World War II had torn Lita De Los Santos’ family apart, scattering eight of her brothers across the world.
As the second youngest of 16 siblings growing up on a farm in the sleepy town of Eastland County, Texas, Lita De Los Santos had a humble, yet memorable childhood. “We lived very simple lives. A small town like that didn’t offer too much of anything.” Her father, Ernesto De Los Santos, worked as a sharecropper, while her mother, Angelita, cared for the men and tended to household matters. Her eleven brothers joined her father on the farm, while her sisters spent their time learning from her mother. Her father strictly adhered to the belief that women had no place in the field. “We did the things we needed to do at home to make it a home,” says De Los Santos of life during the Depression.
De Los Santos’ family moved to México for a short time when she was three years old. Her father pined to return to his childhood home, to the honor his well-respected family once held. The United States provided no future, he felt. Yet six months passed, and the De Los Santos family returned to Texas after realizing life in México was no longer feasible.
In 1939, Ernesto De Los Santos suffered a massive heart attack at 62-years-old. His death left the large family reeling. “We had to learn to fend for ourselves, to find ways to earn a living and to share with family whatever we were able to acquire,” says De Los Santos, who took little jobs around town, like washing dishes at the local restaurant or doing laundry for those who could afford to pay her. Life in Eastland County “was hard, but we knew no different, so we were content,” says De Los Santos.
World War II would alter her world in unimaginable ways just two years later.
A 14-year-old De Los Santos vividly remembers December 7, 1941 – a cold, rainy day spent babysitting her nephew Joe, until news broke on the family radio that Pearl Harbor had been bombed. “The more I listened, the more I realized. I was shocked and surprised and couldn’t wait to tell somebody.”
De Los Santos watched anxiously as World War II erupted. “It started a whole new way of life. The little town was bursting at the seams. Everybody was rearing to go.” And when the draft began, "It was either ‘you come or we come get you,’” says De Los Santos.
Eight of her eleven brothers soon enlisted in the Armed Forces. On her youngest brother, Al’s, sixteenth birthday, De Los Santos’ mother walked him to the post office downtown where she signed his enlistment papers through blinding tears. “I often wonder how my mother didn’t go crazy,” says De Los Santos. “For her to have eight away at the same time, and all different parts of the world.”
The De Los Santos family was not alone. The war changed the entire town of Eastland County. The pace of life was subdued, but the community united. “We became very close, wanting to know ‘Did you hear from your husband? Did you hear from your son? Where is he? Is he coming back?’” recalls De Los Santos.
Small-town living isolated De Los Santos from current news, so the radio became her confidante. She’d listen intently to President Roosevelt’s “Fireside Chats” and pay special attention as the casualty list was read morning, noon and night. “When we did not hear or read our boys’ names on the lists, we would go to sleep thankful that our prayers had been answered, at least for now,” says De Los Santos. She and her mother made a Saturday evening ritual of going to the movies to see the news reel. It was there, as the heavy velvet curtains were drawn back, that the European and Pacific war fronts became a reality. They watched the USO entertain the troops overseas, and “ships going this way and that... it brought the war to us,” De Los Santos remembers.
Living alone with her mother, the women passed their “lonely, fear-filled” days writing letters to brothers, sons, and a young love. “Mama and I spent our days looking toward the sound of the postman’s step on the porch, hoping for mail from some of the boys” says De Los Santos. Letters did arrive, months old and heavily censored by the government. But those letters kept hope alive.
Until one June day in 1944, the local telegram boy knocked softly upon De Los Santos’ door, removed his green telegram cap and handed over a yellow envelope. Charlie, one of her eldest brothers, had been killed in the invasion on Normandy Beach, buried in foreign soil. He would never return home to his newborn child.
The telegrams poured in, each one shedding light on her brothers’ war experiences. Ernie was shot down over France, now a prisoner of war in Germany. Cano was hanging on to life, a piece of shrapnel lodged in his heart. Ray was mildly wounded while serving under General Patton. Jesse and Pete were fighting in New Guinea and the Philippines - one shot in the leg, one contracted malaria. For Nick and Al, no news was good news. Both were sailors, serving in Iwo Jima and Guam, respectively.
De Los Santos knows her brothers sacrificed a lot. “Some were not wounded, but they came home with horrible, horrible memories. The end of the war brought seven boys home as seven men,” she recalls. A flag hung on the family’s front window decorated with seven blue stars and one gold.
Eventually, the tight-knit family diffused across the country. “We all went looking for the American Dream,” she says, “[The boys] wanted to live better lives, to have more, demanded more. None of us stayed there in that small town.”
At 18-years-old, De Los Santos married her soldier, Alejandro Santos of Laredo, who served in Germany. The two, married for 40 years, had six children. Today, De Los Santos lives in Austin, Texas.
“War did wreak havoc on our family, but I feel we are the better for having survived, even if we had to change. We grew stronger as life went on.”