More than seven decades after Sgt. Sus Gonzales died, his family is about to receive one of Great Britain’s highest military medals.
Gonzales was awarded the medal – for exceptional acts of bravery – as he lay dying in January 1945.
His family never knew about the medal. Then, a few months ago, Wabaunsee Sheriff Rob Hoskins decided he wanted to learn more about his two uncles who had died during World War II.
Hoskins grew up in Augusta and remembers the Augusta Roll of Honor on the wall at Calvert’s Restaurant. It contained the names of those who had served during the war, with one star next to the names of those who had been wounded and two stars next to the names of those who had died.
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Both of his uncles – Sus and Frank Gonzales – had two stars by their names.
“My mom would make me say a prayer and say ‘Those are my brothers. Don’t you forget,’” Hoskins said.
After Lt. Frank Gonzales became the first Hispanic inducted into the 35th Infantry Division Hall of Fame in September, Hoskins began to research his other uncle, Sus.
Hoskins learned that the 30-year-old Kansan from Augusta was with H Company 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division. He had survived combat operations in North Africa, Sicily and France. He made it through D-Day and Operation Market Garden, then was fatally wounded during the Battle of the Bulge, days before the battle ended and he was eligible to go home.
It was Sus’ heroics four months earlier that earned him Britain’s Distinguished Conduct Medal, the highest award a non-subject of the crown can receive. After a parachute drop into Holland, during Operation Market Garden, H Company came under heavy fire. Sus got separated from his unit, then happened on a British unit pinned down by a German patrol.
The citation for Technician Fourth Grade Sgt. Gonzales, signed by Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, commander of the British Army, reads:
“T/4 Gonzales unhesitatingly dashed across fifteen yards of open ground and up the side of a railroad embankment, T/4 Gonzales raced along until he was directly over the enemy patrol. He fired three clips from his submachine gun at the patrol, killing 10 and wounding six. The initiative and courage displayed by T/4 Gonzales was outstanding.”
Gonzales received the medal on Jan. 29 – Kansas Day – 1945. He died the next day.
His family was told he had died in battle and was buried in Holland. They never received his personal effects.
The Gonzales family received a Purple Heart medal for each son and a Silver Star for Frank. But the British award never arrived. In the meantime, Army records were lost during a National Personnel Records Center fire at St. Louis in 1973. Family records were lost during an Augusta flood in 1965.
Then Sheriff Hoskins began his research – and began to see a pattern of bravery emerging in his family.
Two brothers, two soldiers
In 1914, Frank Sr. and Lupe Gonzales emigrated from Mexico to Kansas, where Frank Sr. hoped to find work on the railroads. The couple had eight children. Sus was the oldest. The family lived first in Marion and then moved to Augusta in 1928.
Sus was 10 years older than his sister, Esther.
She remembers her oldest brother with a smile always on his face. He was a man with a generous heart. He bought their mother her first washing machine in 1941. He would buy children ice cream cones.
He played football for the Augusta High School Orioles but was kicked off the team for smoking.
“He was a real good football player and that made him mad, and he quit school,” said Esther Mayes, now 93.
Those were the years of the Great Depression, and jobs were hard to find.
He left town and made his way to California.
“He was a gambler and a maverick,” his sister said. “He got a job, at first, picking vegetables then at a casino. He came home and had a nice suit and tie.”
The two brothers enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1940 from Butler County.
“I can remember the Sunday the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and they were home on leave,” Mayes said. “We were listening to the Firestone Hour music on the radio. All military were ordered to return to base. We didn’t have a telephone and were very poor. They were told to finish their leave, so he was home a couple of more days.”
It was the last time she saw her brothers.
‘This country has been good to us’
Frank died on a battlefield in France on Aug. 2, 1944, after taking command of a tank destroyer. Esther remembers him as a leader and mentor who helped her with her homework.
When word of Frank’s death came, her father gathered the family together and told them to be proud. He then went back to work.
“This country has been good to us,” she said. “He knew he had a job to do.”
The war was beginning to wind down when word of Sus’death came.
Her father wept.
“It was the first time I had ever seen him cry,” she said. “He really broke down. They had served their country. This country was good to them, and it’s been good to me. My memories are very, very clear.”
Years later she talked with one of Sus’ Army buddies, who related a story. Sus had told a fellow soldier, ‘Don’t ever go into battle mad – you’re going to make mistakes.’ And then Sus would say, “I’m mad. They killed my brother, and I am mad.’”
Now, 72 years later, Esther will receive a silver-colored British medal with a crimson ribbon. The 82nd Airborne is sending representatives to present the medal to Mayes at 3 p.m. Saturday at the Kansas National Guard Armory, 2115 Moyle St. in Augusta.
She is proud of her brothers’ sacrifices.
“When my brothers came home in their uniforms, they were proud to serve this country,” she said.