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Hispanic Contributions to America's Defense
by John P. Schmal
November 11, 1999
Copyright © 1999 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.
"No ethnic group has
greater pride in itself and its heritage than the Puerto Rican
people. Nor have I encountered any that can be more dedicated
and zealous in support of the democratic principles for which
the United States stands. Many Puerto Ricans have fought to the
death to uphold them." -General William W. Harris
On November 11, Americans observe Veteran's Day. At this time,
we honor the men and women who have served in the American armed
forces, some of whom paid the ultimate price for their loyalty.
Each ethnic group that makes up this mosaic we call America has
contributed its part over the last two centuries, and, according
to the Defense Department publication, Hispanics in America's
Defense, "when our country has been in need, Hispanic Americans
have had more than their share of stouthearted, indomitable men.
Their intrepid actions have been in the highest tradition - a
credit to themselves, their ancestry, and our nation." Until
recent decades, the Hispanic population of the United States has
been quite small. Nevertheless, from the American Revolution to
Desert Storm, Hispanic Americans have risked their lives to defend
the United States and the principles upon which it stands.
When the Civil War erupted in 1861, the allegiance of Mexican
Americans, particularly those living in Texas, was deeply divided.
Initially, some 2,500 Mexican Americans went to war for the Confederacy
, while 950 volunteered for service in the Union Army. By the
end of this bloody struggle (1865), almost 10,000 Mexican Americans
had served in regular army or volunteer units. Of the 40,000 books
and pamphlets written about the Civil War, only one book, Vaqueros
in Blue and Gray, has been printed about the role of the Mexican
Americans. In 1863, the U.S. Government had established four companies
of Mexican-American Californians in order to utilize their "extraordinary
horsemanship." At least 469 Mexican Americans served under
Major Salvador Vallejo, helping to defeat a Confederate invasion
of New Mexico. Significant numbers of Hispanics also served in
such Confederate units as the 10th Texas Cavalry, the 55th Alabama
Infantry, and 6th Missouri Infantry.
Colonel Santos Benavides, originally from Laredo, Texas, ultimately
became the highest ranking Mexican American in the Confederate
Army. As the commander of the 33rd Cavalry, he drove Union forces
back from Brownsville, Texas in March 1864. But the Civil War's
best known Hispanic was the American naval officer, David G. Farragut
(1801-1870), the son of a Spaniard. In 1862, Farragut successfully
commanded Union forces at the capture of New Orleans. While commanding
Federal naval forces during the Battle at Mobile Bay in Alabama,
Farragut uttered the famous slogan: "Damn the torpedoes.
Full steam ahead." During the Civil War, President Lincoln
established the Medal of Honor as the highest and most prestigious
military award given for valor. The medal is presented to any
soldier or sailor, who "distinguishes himself conspicuously
by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and
beyond the call of duty." Two Hispanic Americans received
the Medal of Honor for actions during the Civil War.
On April 11, 1898, at the start of the Spanish-American War,
the United States army, according to the Defense Department, was
"a small professional force" of 30,000 officers and
men "scattered across small posts throughout the country."
Among the 17,000 American soldiers who landed on the southeastern
tip of Cuba in June 1898 were the 1,200 men of the 1st U.S. Volunteer
Cavalry under Lieutenant Colonel Theodore Roosevelt. More commonly
known as the "Rough Riders," this unit included several
Hispanic Americans, including Captain Maximiliano Luna and George
Armijo (who later became a member of Congress).
In World War I (1914-1918), the military was rife with discrimination
against Hispanics. Soldiers with Spanish surnames or Spanish accents
were sometimes the objects of ridicule and relegated to menial
jobs. Latinos lacking English skills were sent to special training
centers to improve their language proficiency so that they could
be integrated into the mainstream army. But America's participation
in the war lasted only from April 1917 to November 1918. As a
result, many soldiers did not have the opportunity to go overseas
and into combat. However, one Hispanic-American soldier received
the Medal of Honor for his services in the war, while a Private
Serna single-handedly captured 24 German soldiers in France. For
his courageous efforts, Private Serna received the Distinguished
Service Cross, the French Croix de Guerre, the Victory Medal with
three bars, and two Purple Hearts. In 1917, just before the United
States entered the war, Puerto Ricans were granted American citizenship.
Thanks to this new status, Puerto Rican men became liable for
the military draft. Subsequently, 18,000 Puerto Ricans served
as members of the American armed forces. Racially segregated,
many of them were sent to the Panama Canal to guard against an
enemy attack, while others were sent to Europe.
At the start of World War II (1939-1945), approximately 2,690,000
Americans of Mexican descent lived in the United States. Eighty-five
percent of this population lived in the five southwestern states
(California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and Colorado). In 1940,
while America was still at peace, two National Guard units from
New Mexico, the 200th and 515th Coast Artillery (Anti-aircraft)
battalions were activated and dispatched to the Philippine Islands.
Largely made up of Spanish-speaking personnel - both officers
and enlisted men from New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas - the two
units were stationed at Clark Field, 65 miles from Manila.
On December 7, 1941, the Japanese Imperial Navy launched a
surprise attack on the American naval fleet at Pearl Harbor, forcing
America into war. Within days, Japanese forces attacked the American
positions in the Philippines. Outnumbered and desperate, General
Douglas MacArthur moved his forces, including the 200th and 515th,
to the Bataan Peninsula west of Manila. Here, fighting alongside
their Filipino comrades, they made a heroic three-month stand
against the large, well-equipped invading forces. As the weeks
wore on, rations, medical supplies, and ammunition diminished
and became scarce. On April 9, 1942, starving and greatly outnumbered,
most of the surviving troops surrendered. After their capture,
the American and Filipino soldiers had to endure the 12-day, 85-mile
"death march" from Bataan to the prison camps, followed
by 34 months of captivity. Three years later, General Jonathan
Wainwright praised the men of the 200th and 515th units, saying
that "they were the first to fire and the last to lay down
their arms and only reluctantly doing so after being given a direct
In the Pacific theater, the 158th Regimental Combat Team, known
as the Bushmasters, an Arizona National Guard unit comprised of
many Hispanic soldiers, saw heavy combat. They earned the respect
of General MacArthur who referred to them as "the greatest
fighting combat team ever deployed for battle." Company E
of the 141st Regiment of the 36th Texas Infantry Division was
made up entirely of Spanish-speaking Americans, the majority of
them from Texas. After 361 days of combat in Italy and France,
the 141st Infantry Regiment sustained 1,126 killed, 5,000 wounded,
and over 500 missing in action. In recognition of their extended
service and valor, the members of the 141st garnered 31 Distinguished
Service Crosses, 12 Legion of Merits, 492 Silver Stars, 11 Soldier's
Medals, 1,685 Bronze Stars, as well as numerous commendations
and decorations. In all, twelve Hispanic soldiers received the
Medal of Honor for their services during World War II.
From 1940 to 1946, more than 65,000 Puerto Ricans served in
the American military, most of them going overseas. The 295th
and 296th Infantry Regiments of the Puerto Rican National Guard
participated in the Pacific theater, while other Puerto Rican
soldiers served in Europe. In addition, some 200 Puerto Rican
women served in the Women's Army Corps, where some were used as
linguists in the field of cryptology, communication, and interpretation.
During the Korean War (1950-1953), the 43,434 Puerto Ricans serving
in the 65th Infantry Regiment saw extensive service in nine major
campaigns, losing 582 men in battlefield action.
Because of their courageous efforts, the 65th Infantry received
a Presidential Unit Citation, a Meritorious Unit Commendation,
and two Republic of Korea Unit Citations. Individual members of
the unit received four Distinguished Service crosses and 124 Silver
Stars. Of his experience as commander of the 65th Infantry Regiment,
General William W. Harris wrote: "No ethnic group has greater
pride in itself and its heritage than the Puerto Rican people.
Nor have I encountered any that can be more dedicated and zealous
in support of the democratic principles for which the United States
stands. Many Puerto Ricans have fought to the death to uphold
A total of nine Hispanic Americans, including one Puerto Rican,
received the Congressional Medal of Honor for heroism during the
three-year war. During the Vietnam Conflict (1963-1973), approximately
80,000 Hispanic Americans served in the American military. Although
Latinos only made up about 4.5% of the total U.S. population at
that time, they incurred more than 19% of the casualties. In all,
thirteen Hispanic soldiers, including three Puerto Ricans, won
the Medal of Honor during this conflict.
Twenty thousand Hispanic servicemen and women participated
in Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm (1990-1991). In March
1994, 28,067 Latinos comprising just over 5% of the Army, served
in the army. Writing in Hispanic Heritage Month 1996: Hispanics
- Challenging the Future, Army Chaplain (Capt.) Carlos C. Huerta
of the 1st Battalion, 79th Field Artillery stated that "Hispanics
have always met the challenge of serving the nation with great
fervor. In every war, in every battle, on every battlefield, Hispanics
have put their lives on the line to protect freedom."
Department of Defense. Hispanics in America's Defense.
Washington, D.C.: U.S. Printing Office, 1990.
Harris, William Warner. Puerto Rico's Fighting 65th U.S.
Infantry: From San Juan to Chorwau. San Rafael, Calif., 1980.
Hide, Michele A. On the Front Lines. Hispanic, Vol.
6, No. 7 (August 1993), p. 34.
Morin, Raul. Among the Valiant. Alhambra, Calif.: Borden
Publishing Company, 1963.
Romero, Judy Baca. Hispanics in Americas Defense: Korean
Conflict (1950-1953). 1996-1997. Online: Internet. 1 page.
February 20, 1997.
Romero, Judy Baca. Hispanics in America's Defense: WWII
- Europe & Mediterranean. 1996-1997. Online: Internet.
3 pp. February 20, 1997.
Williams, Rudi. Hispanic America USA: Hispanics Make Great
Strides in Military. 1996-1997. Online: Internet. 1 page.
March 26, 1997.