Private First Class Lawrence Quintana Contreras
- Unit: 27th Infantry Division, 165th Infantry Regiment
- Service Number: 38009334
- Date of Birth: January 29, 1919
- Entered the Military: September 26, 1941
- Date of Death: July 11, 1944
- Hometown: Greeley, Colorado and Como, Wyoming
- Place of Death: Mariana Islands, Saipan
- Award(s): Bronze Star, Purple Heart
- Cemetery: Section F, Grave 1071. National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, Honolulu, Hawaiʻi
Mentored by Dr. Kelly Cvanciger
Bear Creek High School
Lawrence Contreras was born on January 29, 1919, in Como, Wyoming, to Eufelia and Alfonso Contreras. Before Lawrence turned six years old, the family moved to Greeley, Colorado and began working as farm hands on a local sugar beet farm owned by the Honstein family. Due to the Great Depression, Weld County’s rich agricultural value attracted Hispanic workers. While Lawrence did not complete his elementary education, he became a productive member of the family, working side-by-side with his father on the beet farm.
Growing up in Greeley, Colorado was not easy for Hispanic families. From the 1920s through the 1940s, they faced violence from the KKK, who hated Catholics and immigrants. This led to the building of Our Lady of Peace Catholic Church to provide a welcoming environment that afforded Hispanic families a community where language and culture were accessible to everyone.
Since the late nineteenth century, Weld County, Colorado has been a leader in agricultural production, growing corn, sugar beets, and potatoes shipped nationally to families across the United States. Because of Weld county’s agricultural productivity, Mexican immigrants were attracted to the area, realizing they could make a living wage even during the Great Depression of the late 1930s. Working side-by-side with struggling farm owners, Mexican families employed their children to help with fieldwork. Lawrence Contreras was one of those farmhands. Working alongside his parents, they battled the Dust Bowl of 1930, the Great Depression from 1929 to 1939, and a terrible water drought in 1933 due to a court decision to deny Colorado water from the North Platte River, the major water source into Greeley.
By the start of World War II, the federal government asked Colorado farmers to increase the production of cows, sheep, and pigs because eggs, milk, and meat were needed to feed the growing population of the United States. Grain production of wheat, barley, and corn also increased, but little of the crop yield went to the civilian population of Colorado.
On September 26, 1941, at the age of 21, Lawrence Contreras enlisted in the U.S. Army. Private First Class Contreras was in the 165th Infantry Regiment, which dates back to World War I. Private First Class Conteras received training as an automatic rifleman, to provide suppressive firepower during battles. Contreras’ training in Alabama continued even as the nation faced the tragic days following the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese.
By April 8, 1942, Private First Class Contreras’ unit landed in Oahu, Hawaiʻi. During this time, the United States sent a surplus of ships through the Atlantic to combat European forces but required reinforcement in the Pacific. The division began planning a counterattack on the Japanese as a response to the attack on Pearl Harbor, setting its sights on the Mariana Islands, east of the Philippines.
On November 20, 1943, the 165th Infantry Division, along with other divisions, waited along the shore of Makin Island for the perfect moment to execute their attack. Behind them was an even larger number of U.S. Marines, and many other military forces waited on coasts as far as Hawaiʻi and New Zealand in the event of a disaster at Makin. This mission was planned around Contreras’ division, as they were to be the head of the attack. The 165th Infantry Regiment carried out its initial attack on the Coral Atoll of Makin, successfully defeating Japanese troops.
Private First Class Contreras returned to Hawaiʻi with his division, soon departing for the island of Saipan. American soldiers landed on the western coast of Saipan as reinforcements for the Marine division on June 17, 1944, in an attempt to take the island from the Japanese. This mission, designed to disrupt Japanese supply lines, resulted in the successful capture of Aslito Airfield. However, as the 165th Infantry Regiment continued east through the mountainous terrain across Saipan, fatigue began to overtake many soldiers. Private First Class Contreras was shot and killed in the line of duty during this time of complete exhaustion, as he is accredited for taking the front lines to save the lives of his fellow soldiers.
Private First Class Lawrence Contreras was born in Como, Wyoming, on January 29, 1919. Early in his childhood, his father moved the family to Greeley, Colorado, where they lived until Contreras enlisted in the United States Army on September 26, 1941, committing to our nation. Contreras joined the 165th Infantry Regiment, 27th Infantry Division. They prepared for the potential of American involvement in the war effort, as Japanese aggression increased across the Pacific, and World War II continued in Europe.
After the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the United States entered World War II. Private First Class Contreras completed his training as an automatic rifleman and was ready to serve the United States in the Pacific Theater.
After three weeks of battle in the unpredictable terrain of Saipan, many soldiers were tired as they faced continuous bombardment by Japanese troops. 13,000 soldiers were wounded, and 3,000 troops perished in the campaign. The American victory in Saipan was recognized on July 9, 1944. Lawrence Contreras never returned to the dusty farmlands in Greeley, Colorado. Private First Class Contreras was wounded on the front lines and died in the line of duty on July 11, 1944. Today we recognize Private First Class Lawrence Contreras of Colorado, a recipient of the Infantryman’s Badge, Bronze Star, and Purple Heart for his courage and commitment to our nation during World War II.
Looking back when we first started this project, Lawrence had the least amount of available information about him. I found that to be even more of a reason that he should be remembered in our nation’s history. I started with basic searches and was often met with little to no information. This research was starting to feel like a puzzle with no matching pieces.
I started by researching his hometown of Greeley, Colorado. This research really opened my eyes to the discrimination that faced Latino families in the early twentieth century. Through learning about the downfalls of my home state, I was able to build connections with local historians and better understand Colorado’s history.
As I continued my research into Lawrence’s military life, I couldn’t help but find parallels between his life and the lives of the men in my family who have served in the United States Armed Forces. This allowed me to realize the importance of this research, and continue to dig deeper despite all of the dead ends. I finally found a distant relative of Lawrence Contreras, and she described the impact he still has on their family, nearly 80 years later. However, she did not have any photos, just stories passed down to her generation. Being given the opportunity to research Private First Class Lawrence Contreras has gifted me the understanding of keeping the stories of others alive for the sake of our families, and ourselves.
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Contreras Family Photographs. 1941. Courtesy of the Contreras Family.
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