Frank Hernandez can still slip easily into his old U.S. Army uniform, the one he wore in World War II some 70 years ago.
When he pulled it on this week for the first time in years, it brought back powerful memories: Of being wounded in battle, of being taken prisoner and nearly killed by German soldiers, of spending six hungry weeks in a POW camp in Germany.
"I have no idea when I last wore this," he says as he looks down at his uniform, which could still pass an inspection. "But it still fits. And it sure brings back a lot of memories."
Hernandez, who turns 89 next month, will be the parade marshal in the Central Point Independence Day parade that begins at 9:30 a.m. Thursday.
"It's a great feeling to be asked to do this — I feel very honored," says the veteran, who will ride in a black, 1941 Ford convertible with Carmen, his wife of 65 years. The longtime Medford couple have six children.
A retired cabinetmaker, he was drafted in December of 1943 into the U.S. Army while living in his native California. He was 18.
"I was a rifleman all the way through," recalls the soldier, who rose to the rank of corporal by war's end.
With the war well under way, the young soldier was initially sent to England, then to Normandy as a member of the 83rd Infantry Division, dubbed the "Thunderbolt Division." He was among the replacements for those lost during the D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944.
His first major battle was "Operation Cobra," which included fighting in the hedgerows of Carentan, France.
"They kept shelling us," he says. "We would go into our foxholes. But a mortar shell landed near me before I could take cover."
Shrapnel sliced into his leg and hip. The concussion temporarily rendered him deaf.
"The medics picked me up with a stretcher and were carrying me away when another shell came down on us," he says. "They just dropped me and took cover.
"I lay there praying," he adds. "I was always praying, you know. I think maybe the prayers kept me alive."
He was picked up again and taken to a field hospital tent, where he underwent surgery. He was then sent back to England, where he spent two months recuperating in a hospital in Bristol.
"I started walking again and one day went over to the servicemen's club," he says. "They had a jukebox playing Glenn Miller swing music. I asked one of the girls if she wanted to jitterbug. We started jitterbugging, and one of my doctors saw me. He said I was going back on duty.
"I guess I was jitterbugging a little too good," adds the veteran, who remains an accomplished ballroom dancer to this day.
He was sent back to the front lines, this time to Germany with the 101st Airborne Division, where he fought in the Battle of Hurtgen Forest.
From there, he was deployed to Belgium, where he fought in the Battle of the Bulge in December of 1944 and into the following January.
Then it was back to Germany, where his unit took the cities of Duren and Rhineland.
Early in April of that year, he and seven other soldiers were bivouacked in an old house not far from Berlin. While the rest slept in the basement, two soldiers stood guard.
"All of a sudden about 5 o'clock in the morning, I heard some noises outside," he says. "I got up and looked and saw we were surrounded by German soldiers. Our two guards were gone."
Hernandez, who knew a little German, went out to meet the Germans after they demanded the Americans exit the house.
"I went out, and the commander told this young soldier to shoot me," he says. "He took me out to the side of the building. I dropped down on my knees and started praying."
Just then the other Americans came out with their hands up. The German commander then barked an order for all of them to be taken to Stalag 11-A.
"I remember marching through the town and people beating on us," he says. "Our bombers had been bombing them, flattening their buildings. They were getting even."
Upon arriving in the POW camp, the newly minted prisoners were interrogated.
"When they started interrogating me, asking me about my outfit, I told them, 'I no speak English good,' " he recalls with a chuckle. "I told them, 'I am a Mexican. I am from Mexico.' That got me out of the interrogation."
For the next six weeks, he was a POW sitting out the war.
"We didn't have hardly anything to eat," he says. "We were really hungry."
But the war was coming to an end. Americans in trucks soon liberated them as the camp guards fled.
"We were in an airplane to Normandy when we heard over the radio that the war (in Europe) was over," he says of May 8, 1945. "We were very happy to hear that."
Hernandez returned to France on the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Normandy in 1994, where the veteran received the French Gold Medal for his efforts to liberate that country during the war.
Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email@example.com.