Miguel Encinias, a Las Vegas, N.M., native who fought in three wars and received three Distinguished Flying Crosses, the second-highest decoration for valor in combat, died peacefully in his sleep Saturday. He was 92.
His son and daughter said he died of natural causes in an Albuquerque nursing home.
One of New Mexico's most decorated war veterans, Encinias served in World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War and was a former prisoner of war. He later helped oversee the creation of the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.
"He was a very quiet, humble man who didn't speak much -- unless he had to give a speech," said Ralph Arellanes, whose father and uncles grew up with Encinias in Las Vegas in the 1930s. "He never spoke ill of the Germans or the Japanese or anybody he fought. As he said, 'They were just defending their country and fighting for what they believed in.'"
Encinias was born April 8, 1923, the youngest of 16 children. As a teen he delivered the Las Vegas Daily Optic newspaper and also boxed. His daughter, Isabel Encinias, said her father was a movie buff who would box for money and then use his winnings to go to the cinema.
When the family's fortunes declined during the tail end of the Great Depression, he joined the New Mexico National Guard in 1939 at the age of 16. He wasn't alone -- many of his peers did the same thing.
"The reason for the rush to join was that the battalions were predominantly Hispanic ... from Las Vegas, Albuquerque and Socorro ... almost 100 percent Hispanic," Encinias said in a 2001 interview for the University of Texas Voces Oral History Project.
Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Encinias, knowing there was a big demand for pilots, applied for the air cadet academy and was accepted. He recalled in that 2001 interview that "All the time I was in training I never met another pilot who was Hispanic."
After his plane was shot down over Northern Italy in 1944, he said, he also was the only Hispanic prisoner at Stalag Luft 1 in Barth, Germany. By that time he had flown some 40 missions against the Germans and shot down three enemy aircraft in combat. He and other prisoners used Red Cross rations to bribe the guards for radio parts which they used to build a radio and learn what was going on during the war. Encinias joked that because of that radio the prisoners knew about the invasion of Normandy before the Germans who held them.
Encinias was interviewed about his 15 months of captivity at Stalag Luft 1 by Tom Brokaw, who profiled the New Mexican in The Greatest Generation Speaks, Brokaw's sequel to his best-seller The Greatest Generation.
The camp was liberated by Russian troops in April 1945. After the war, Encinias attended Georgetown University, where he earned a bachelor's degree in political science. He later got the equivalent of a master's degree at the Institute of Political Studies in Paris. Encinias was so proficient in French that he was asked to teach the language at the U.S. Air Force Academy.
He married Jeanine Henrietta Blondel, a native of France, in 1963, and had one son and three daughters with her.
When the Korean War broke out in 1950, Encinias served as an F-86 Sabre jet pilot and flew over 100 missions, once again getting shot down at least once. This time, however, an American helicopter crew rescued him from behind enemy lines. He remained in the Air Force and served as an adviser in Vietnam in the early 1960s, accompanying Vietnamese Air Force pilots on missions. He recalled once taking a Vietnamese soldier for a low-level flight along a swampy area where the passenger was "sitting in the back with a shotgun shooting Viet Cong."
Encinias retired from the Air Force as a lieutenant colonel in 1971 and returned to New Mexico, where he earned a doctorate in Spanish literature at The University of New Mexico. He also wrote several books, including a novel based on the life of Spanish explorer Don Juan de Onate. His daughter said he lived two lives: "One in the military and one afterward."
In a 2006 interview with The New Mexican, Encinias said he kept volunteering to fight "to prove something to myself. ... I said to myself that I was only good enough for war, so I made a career out of it."
His son, Juan-Pablo Encinias, said his father realized "it was a very special cause he was fighting for. He felt very strongly about serving, especially in World War II, and felt it was a just cause no matter what the price.
"He almost never spoke about his combat experience. My father really did not seem that scarred by the wars. He was a tough-minded person who kind of accepted that as part of life and was not taken aback by it."
Nevertheless, when Encinias was interviewed for the University of Texas Voces Oral History Project about his wartime experiences, he got choked up remembering the atrocities Russian soldiers committed against German women when the country was liberated from the Nazis. "They were so defenseless," he said.
In the mid-1990s, President Bill Clinton asked Encinias to serve on the World War II Memorial Advisory Board to help build the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. When that memorial finally opened in 2004, Encinias was the only living veteran on the board to attend the ceremony, where he spoke.
In addition to his Distinguished Flying Cross honors, during his career Encinias was awarded two Purple Heart medals and 14 Air Medals, his children said.
He is survived by his wife, two of his daughters, his son and four grandchildren.
Burial in Santa Fe National Cemetery is scheduled for 9 a.m. Friday, Feb. 26.