Fresno veteran who took rare color photos of WWII dies at 97

Cruz Rios in a boat along the shore of Lake Garda. April 1945.
Cruz Rios in a boat along the shore of Lake Garda. April 1945.

Veteran Cruz Floriano Rios Jr. of Fresno, who died May 25 at age 97, left his mark on the world through a collection of rare color photos he took while serving with the 10th Mountain Division in Italy during World War II.

These photos are some of the earliest shot with Kodachrome slide film and were taken at a time when only New York and Los Angeles developed color film, his son Val Rios said. Pictures from the war are rare because soldiers were barred from taking photographs, but Rios said his father sent the film home in hopes that one day he would be able to see them. Little did he know that people in Europe and the U.S. would one day rely on his illicit color pictures for a unique perspective of the war.

Mr. Rios’ pictures caught the attention of Andrew Gandolfi, director of the WWII collection at the Iola Museum in Montese, while the father and son were traveling with other veterans in Italy.

“The pictures by Cruz Rios are not the usual combat photos,” Gandolfi said in an email.

“His eye was able to ‘freeze’ unique and representative moments of every-day life. Precisely for this reason, in my opinion, the photos are special.”

The director published a book in Italian and English called “In My Father’s Foxholes and Footsteps,” which features Cruz Rios’ pictures and transcripts of interviews his son conducted. The town of Montese also displays a handful of Mr. Rios’ photos at refurbished foxholes and trenches to help school groups and visitors step back in time and discover a new perspective to the war.

International museums in Italy as well as Slovenia feature copies of the photos, but the originals are housed at the Denver Public Library because the 10th Mountain Division trained outside of Denver, and many veterans returned from the war and settled in the region, Rios said. But because the Smithsonian Institution is expressing interest now in the pictures, they may gain national attention.

Mr. Rios purchased the Argus C2 camera from a fellow soldier and kept it hidden in his coat. When officers weren’t looking, he captured candid moments of soldiers smoking and playing cards in their shorts and smiling group pictures of the division, often with Italian townspeople – young Italian women, old grandmothers, children and whole families. He depicted the beautiful snowy mountains, bright blue skies and the green valleys. But many pictures hinted at the warfare in the hill towns: the derelict jeeps, crumbling stone buildings and debris-filled streets. He took snapshots of his division marching in the snow with tattered coats and soldiers crouching in foxholes.

Before Val Rios found his father’s pictures hidden in a closet, Cruz Rios was reticent to talk about the war.

“As a kid you play army, but we didn’t know a lot about it unless they were willing to share, and many weren’t,” Rios said. “My dad was working quite a bit, and I didn’t have many chances in the evening to talk with him.” After his father returned from the war, he owned and operated his own gas station and taught auto mechanics at Fresno City College for 18 years.

When he was 12 years old, Rios found his father’s pictures encased in glass slides, which is how early slides were processed. Without asking his dad, Rios broke the glass so that he could put the slides into a projector tray and display them in the living room. He said his father was not bothered: On the contrary, he was glad his son took an interest in the war and began sharing his stories.

Rios has three favorite color pictures from his father’s time in Italy. In the first, his dad and a fellow soldier sit in a foxhole – small holes dug in the ground for protection – loading a mortar. The second picture features his father and five other soldiers on bicycles that they used to chase Germans. He said he likes the picture because it shows the soldiers with the Italian people, who would give them bread, cheese and wine as they marched. The third picture captures his father smiling as he sits in a boat on sparkling blue Lake Garda.

On a 2000 trip to Italy, Val Rios and his father searched for a church he had taken a picture of and had attended, but to no avail. The younger Rios took to the Internet and spent 2 1/2 years looking, eventually locating it. When they visited the church on their 2003 trip to Italy, Cruz Rios began excitedly showing the picture to everyone in the church, which had not changed much since he had been there during the war. He began to weep after two women recognized themselves in his old picture.

Pictures have a power that words do not, Gandolfi said. Mr. Rios’ pictures in particular have an enduring historical legacy and a different significance to every generation.

“I think that elderly people re-experience moments of their youth, not only related to the period of the war,” Gandolfi said. “I think that middle-aged people are curious: They have heard their parents speak about their lives during the war but they could never ‘see it.’ 

JoAnna Kroeker: 559-441-6247, @jobethkroeker

Cruz Floriano Rios Jr.

Date of birth: Dec. 15, 1918

Date of death: May 25, 2016

Occupation: Auto mechanics instructor, gas station owner

Survivors: Wife Lucy, three children, Val and Conrad Rios and Marta Escarcega, 10 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren

Services: A Mass of Christian burial will be held at St. Paul Newman Catholic Center, 1572 E. Barstow Ave. on Wednesday at 10 a.m.