When staff at the Hidalgo County Judge’s Office learned that a McAllen native and WWII veteran they were going to honor for turning 100 years old was going to attend the meeting alone because his wife was too ill to go, they knew they had to do something.
So they quickly contacted the Hidalgo County Veterans Office to gather fellow veterans, and on Tuesday Eugene Gutierrez, who served in the First Special Service Forces during WWII, celebrated his 100th birthday surrounded by fellow brothers-in-arms at Commissioners Court in Edinburg.
Born Sept. 14, 1921, Gutierrez had just graduated from Harlingen High School when he decided to join the army to study engineering, but the attacks on Pearl Harbor changed the course of his military career.
Gutierrez joined the FSSF, who were later dubbed “the Devil’s Brigade” by the German opposition, in July 1942 and began the rigorous training with the elite group of 1,800 troops from both American and Canadian armies at Fort William Henry Harrison in Montana.
On Tuesday, veterans lined the walls and sat in socially distant chairs, waiting patiently for Gutierrez to be honored.
The Honor Guard, carrying the American flag, a Prisoner of War flag and a pair of rifles, performed the Presentation of Colors as soon as the meeting began. The Pledge of Allegiance followed.
“I feel very prideful,” Hidalgo County Veteran Service Officer Samuel Perez Jr. said. “I’m an Iraq war veteran so this really resonated with me; another wartime veteran, but he really set the bar high.”
Upon returning home, Gutierrez graduated from Oklahoma State University in 1950 and settled in McAllen where he worked as an educator, principal and superintendent at McAllen Independent School District for 30 years before he retired in 1980.
“The veteran didn’t just come back home and [rely] on his military service, he continued his education and gave back to the community by being an educator and so, I admire that,” Perez said. “It makes me more motivated to go out there and do more for my community.”
The decorated wartime veteran continues to be an active member of the community through his work in the Sierra Club and as a parishioner at Our Lady of Sorrows Church.
“Being a hundred years old is nothing, if you overlook the ups and downs in life,” Gutierrez said as the room erupted in laughter.
A wall of veterans formed behind Gutierrez as commissioners recognized him for his military service, dedication to the community and his love of life.
“I was approached by our county judge with just a small ceremony here, but this is beautiful and I’m very proud,” Gutierrez said. “I will cherish this for the rest of my life.”
The veteran ended his speech with a prayer known as “Conversion” which was known to be carried by soldiers during WWII and written by Frances Angermayer from Kansas City in 1943. It speaks about a soldier who has met God as he prepares for battle.
“Well, I guess there isn’t much more to say
But I’m sure glad, God, I met you today
I guess zero hour will soon be here
But I’m not afraid since I know you’re near”
Gutierrez has been honored with two Bronze Stars, one for valor and the other for infantry combat, and awarded a Liberation of France medal, a Good Conduct medal, a World War Two Victory medal, a First Special Service Force medal and the Congressional Gold medal.