They tried 57 years ago to make certain that World War II's horrors would never be forgotten. But it wasn't until Thursday that they finally remembered one of that war's heroes.
East Los Angeles resident Daniel Montoya Sr. was belatedly awarded a Purple Heart, Bronze Star, Combat Infantry Badge and four other Army medals for his harrowing experience chasing Nazis and helping liberate Jewish concentration camps in 1945.
"Sometimes recognition is a long time coming," Army Brig. Gen. Richard Pierce said as he pinned the Purple Heart on the 81-year-old Montoya, a retired contractor.
"Better late than never!" shouted someone in the crowd of 300 that gave Montoya a standing ovation during a Veterans Day observance at the VA Medical Center in West Los Angeles.
Montoya operated a Browning automatic rifle with the fast-moving 71st Infantry Division. The unit pushed 800 miles through France, Germany and Austria during the hectic final two months of the war, battling Nazis daily and liberating more than 80 small concentration camps along the way.
Military leaders were so appalled by the horrors soldiers discovered that they published a 30-page booklet for all 15,700 men in the division. They wrote that they wanted to record "the damning evidence" found in one of the larger camps -- Gunskirchen Lager -- "in the hope that the lessons learned in Germany will not soon be forgotten by the democratic nations or the individual men."
But the 71st Division moved so quickly that its paperwork couldn't keep up with Montoya, who was wounded three times. He was hit by shrapnel from a German mortar, grazed by a bullet, and he broke a foot as he dodged machine-gun fire.
"My earliest recollection of my father was when I was about 2 and he winked at me and I tried to wink back and noticed the lump on his chin," said Montoya's son, Daniel Jr.
"He said it was shrapnel and changed the subject. I hounded him about it for years, and then I noticed a straight-line graze wound behind his knee. He finally told me they were from combat."
The younger Montoya, a 43-year-old San Diego pharmacist, decided to track down his father's military medals after seeing a wartime photograph of children who had been rescued from a concentration camp by the 71st Division.
It took two years to reconstruct missing Army records using old military "morning reports" containing notations of injuries suffered by the unit's soldiers with the help of Rep. Grace F. Napolitano (D-Norwalk).
The 71st Division's official unit history, published in 1946, omitted Montoya's name from the list of those receiving medals. But it contained a heartbreaking description of the liberation of 15,000 Jewish prisoners from the Gunskirchen Lager concentration camp four days before the war's end.
In the woods outside the camp, Americans found "unburied piles of starved dead, mass death from starvation, thirst and methodical torture ... pictures or written word cannot convey the wordless horror ... ," stated the postwar account.
The booklet, "The Seventy First Came to Gunskirchen Lager," was printed quickly after the camp's liberation. It contained graphic photographs and first-person accounts of what Americans found in an Austrian pine forest.
"Row upon row of living skeletons, jammed so closely together that it was impossible for some to turn over, even if they could have generated enough strength to do so, met our eyes," recounted Maj. Cameron Coffman of Kentucky.
"A little girl, doubled with the gnawing pains of starvation, cried pitifully for help. A Jewish rabbi tripped over a dead body as he scurried toward me with strength he must have been saving for the arrival of the American forces. He kissed the back of my gloved hand and clutched my sleeve with a talon-like grip as he lifted his face toward heaven. I could not understand what he said, but it was a prayer. I did not have to understand his spoken word."
Montoya, who was being treated for his broken foot, was spared that scene. "I heard all about it. I wouldn't have wanted to see it. But I would have done everything I could to help those people," he said Thursday.
So it is no wonder that the 71st Division Assn. includes an unusual civilian component: grateful Gunskirchen survivors who have never forgotten their liberators and have joined as members.
"The 71st Division saved our lives," said one of them: retired Beverly Hills glazing contractor Bill Gordon, 81. He spent three years in Nazi concentration camps and was one of those found starving in Gunskirchen Lager.
Gordon was disappointed Thursday to learn that he had not heard about Montoya's ceremony in time to attend.
"What happened there will never be forgotten. I am glad he was not forgotten. I would like to shake his hand," he said.