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Memorial Day: My Father Was a Soldier


Someone wished me a "Happy Memorial Day," and it sounded odd. Memorial Day is not about cookouts; it is for honoring and mourning the U.S. military personnel who died while serving the nation. My father was a soldier. He fought in a war that was wrong, and that is why I am here.


Growing up, my father rarely told stories of the Colonial War in Portuguese Guinea (now Guinea-Bissau). His memory was shrouded in pride and pain. The war, a part of the larger Portuguese Colonial War (1961-1974), was a conflict that profoundly shaped his life and (indirectly) mine as well.


My father was between high schools in 1963 when he met my mother, an American student studying Portuguese at the University of Coimbra. They fell in love, and when he was drafted into the army, she vowed to write him while he was away.


He went through basic training and then cavalry training in Estremoz. His battalion, 490, was supposed to go to Mozambique. But as the war in Guinea faltered, they were shipped there instead.


The Colonial War in Portuguese Guinea was one for independence, as Portugal refused to withdraw from its five African colonies, unlike other European nations. The African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC), led by Amílcar Cabral, sought to end Portuguese rule and establish an independent state.




My Father's Journey

My father was a young man when he was conscripted into the Portuguese army. Like many of his peers, he was sent to a distant land to fight a war that seemed far removed. Africa, the Salazar regime said, was made up of "overseas provinces." He was told he was going to defend Portugal from terrorists, but the humid, tropical landscapes of Guinea-Bissau contrasted sharply with his native surroundings, and the language, culture, and climate were all foreign to him. He quickly figured out he had been lied to.


He once described how on his first tour in the jungle, a bullet ricocheted off the hatch of his Panhard tank. He quickly realized it was kill or be killed.


The War's Impact

The war in 1966 Portuguese Guinea was marked by guerrilla tactics. My father and his men would endure harsh conditions: The oppressive heat, the dense jungles, and the constant threat of ambushes. Malaria and other tropical diseases were as much a threat as the bullets and ambushes. Despite these awful realities, my father formed a deep bond with his fellow soldiers. They were all in the same predicament, young men caught in a conflict they had little control over and could not understand. My father spoke of the doubt and uncertainty that accompanied him.


The Human Side of War

One of the stories that stayed with me was about a young boy who came at his tank. He had a grenade, and had been told that Portuguese bullets could not kill him. He was wrong, and that moment haunted my father. He struggled with the memory of his experiences long after the war ended.


He loved his men and fondly spoke of coming famished to a village and asking for food. They offered the soldiers roasted meat, which they took gratefully. When one saw that the meat had a hand attached, they feared they were being fed human meat, but it turned out to be monkey.


He brushed his teeth with whiskey. They were always wary of the PIDE, the state police. They raided Senegal and helped liberate Portuguese prisoners in Conakry.


For my father, returning home was bittersweet. The country he came back to had deceived him. Back on our farm, he broke his arm loading a truck. A week later, they gave him a War Cross. "Did you break your arm in action, my son?" the general asked. "No, my general, I fell off a truck," was his reply.


For a month after the war ended for him, he slept with a gun under his bed. The sensitive young man who went to Africa never returned. He was changed, and he wanted to leave Portugal and start a new life in America with his love.


Reflection

As I grew older, I came to understand the horrors of that war and the broader political and personal context. For my father, it was a turning point. For Portugal, it was a brutal error that cost the lives of thousands.


Through his rare stories, I gained a deeper appreciation for the sacrifices made by those who served. I am proud of him. He was on the wrong side of history, but he fought to stay alive and keep his men alive. He didn't betray Portugal, but Portugal certainly betrayed him. So I won't likely have a "Happy Memorial Day." But I will remember the importance of learning from the past. And, I today mourn my father - António Henriques Simões.

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