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Duty, Honor and Patriotism

Remembering a forgotten force on Veterans Day

By Jim Estrada
Published on LatinoLA: November 8, 2011


Duty, Honor and Patriotism


In the Latino culture there are many sayings (dichos). One of my favorites is "Las palabras son enanas, los ejemplos son gigantes" (Words are dwarfs, examples are giants). Most English speakers recognize the meaning of this adage as, "Actions speak louder than words" -- which is the theme of this essay as our nation prepares to celebrate Veterans Day.

Despite their economic, social and political contributions to the United States of America, Latinos are still viewed by many of their fellow U.S. Americans as foreigners, immigrants and threats to their U.S. culture and society. Among the major reasons for these perceptions is the absence of Latino contributions in our nation's recorded history, negative portrayals in movies and literature, and the omission of "positive" news media coverage regarding this diverse segment of the U.S. population.

It is apparent to an increasing number of academicians, historians and too few of the general public that Latinos have been systematically excluded from much of U.S. history, which prompted me to share this essay with you. To learn that Latinos have participated in every major military conflict, from the American Revolution -- when volunteers joined the colonists to fight the British in 1779 under the command of Spanish General Jos?® Bernardo de Galvez Gallardo -- to the present-day conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, one must cull through the catacombs of public and college libraries or less accessible repositories of Spanish-language and Latino literature.

In such archives you will find Latinos have been ready to prove their support of the principles expressed by the founding fathers of our nation, " that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."

Revolutionary allies

Among the earliest contributions to U.S. military exploits were those made by Spain. Judge Edward F. Butler, the National Society, Sons of the American Revolution's (NSSAR) Ambassador to Mexico (2001-2002) and founder and Charter President of NSSAR's Mexico affiliate has corroborated that from 1776 to 1779, Spain provided financial support to the 13 colonies in the amount of 8 million reales for medical supplies and food for their fledgling military forces.

The infusion of capital was necessary due to the fact that the colonies' printed currency lacked the backing of silver or gold. The real was the currency of Spain's colonies in the Americas and equal to the Spanish reales de plata, also known as "pieces of eight," or "Spanish dollar." The coins circulated in the British and Spanish colonies and beyond as the international monetary standard of its day and ultimately became the model for the U.S. dollar.

Throughout the course of the War of Independence, Spain also delivered military support, arms, munitions and food to the colonists. According to Butler, in the last three months of 1776, Spain was reported to have sent the colonists some 10,000 pounds of gunpowder (via the Mississippi River) and by cargo ship (via the Atlantic Ocean) to Philadelphia.

In 1779, Spanish, Mexican and Tejano ranchers and vaqueros began the first recorded rodeo (round-up) of some 15,000 head of cattle and hundreds of horses, mules, and bulls along the R?¡o Guadalupe -- from San Antonio de Bexar to La Bahia (Goliad) -- for delivery to Spain's General Galvez in New Orleans. The cattle were used to feed Spanish troops along the Gulf Coast and some is believed to have reached General Washington's Continental Army troops at Valley Forge.

A year later, Spain's King Carlos, III issued a royal decree requiring a one-time "voluntary" donation from all residents in each of New Spain's settlements in the Americas, ranging from 2 pesos from each Spaniard and one peso from each indigenous native. (I was unable to locate information about how much mestizos were asked to contribute, but based on caste it probably depended on where they fell in the color spectrum.) Very early in the Revolutionary War, Latinos helped the original 13 colonies defray the cost of their war of independence from Britain.

On the battlefield, General Galv?®z and his troops also captured strategic ports (Mobile, AL and Pensacola, FL) from the British in 1780-1781, aiding the colonists and their military objectives. He received numerous letters of gratitude from prominent colonist leaders, including Thomas Jefferson, yet little recognition is given to these early contributions to our fledgling nation. It is noteworthy to mention the city of Galveston, Texas, was named in his honor.

One nation, indivisible

In 1861, with the memory of the Mexican-American War still fresh in their minds, Latinos again took up arms to fight in the Civil War; some 2,500 Tejanos pledged their allegiance to the Confederate States of America (CSA), while nearly 1,000 more volunteered for military service in support of Union forces.

By 1863, the Union had recruited four companies of Californianos known for their "extraordinary horsemanship" in efforts to bolster their side's cavalry units. At least 469 of them served under Major Salvador Vallejo to defeat a Confederate invasion of New Mexico. By the end of this bloody civil struggle in 1865, almost 10,000 Latinos had served valiantly in regular and volunteer army units on both sides of the skirmish lines.

Significant numbers of Latinos served in such Confederate units as the 10th Texas Cavalry, the 55th Alabama Infantry, and 6th Missouri Infantry. Colonel Santos Benavides of Laredo, Texas, ultimately became the highest-ranking Latino in the Confederate Army. As Commander of the 33rd Cavalry, he and his men drove Union forces back from Brownsville, TX in March 1864.

Of the more than 40,000 books and pamphlets written about the U.S. Civil War, only one book, "Vaqueros in Blue and Gray" by Jerry Don Thompson (with forward by University of Texas-San Antonio history professor F?®lix Almar?íz) focused on the contributions made by Tejanos to the U.S. Civil War and Texas. Many of these same accounts have been handed-down for generations by "word of mouth" among the families and friends of these veterans, but neglected by most U.S. historians and public school curricula.

In 1866, David G. Farragut was the first U.S. naval officer ever awarded the ranks of Rear Admiral, Vice Admiral and Admiral. He was also the senior naval officer during the Civil War. Although mentioned frequently in U.S. historical accounts for his bravery in battle -- "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!" -- few references were ever made to his Spanish ancestry.

A few good men

It was during the Civil War that President Abraham Lincoln created the Congressional Medal of Honor as the nation's highest military award in times of war. It was awarded to members of the military service who distinguished themselves "conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his/her life above and beyond the call of duty."

Despite minimal publicity or historical documentation, Latinos are among the largest number of non-European white U.S. Americans to have earned our nation's highest military award. As of 2011, 45 or more had been awarded the Medal of Honor (MOH) -- 26 posthumously.

Among the first to be awarded the MOH for bravery during the Civil War were: Joseph H. de Castro, a Spaniard serving with the 19th Massachusetts Infantry for bravery displayed at the battle of Gettysburg, July 3, 1863; Philip Bazaar, a Chilean serving in the U.S. Navy, for bravery displayed during the assault on Fort Fisher, NC on January 15, 1865; and John Ortega, a Spaniard serving in the U.S. Navy, for bravery displayed aboard the USS Saratoga, December 1865.

In World War I, David B. Barkley (Laredo, TX), son of Antonia Cant?? Barkley, served in Company A, 89th Division, 356th Infantry. He lost his life on a reconnaissance mission after swimming across the icy Meuse River in France to draw maps of German artillery positions. In addition to the MOH, he also was posthumously awarded France's Croix de Guerre and Italy's Croce Merito de Guerra.

U.S. Army Private First Class Joseph Charles Rodriguez (San Bernardino, CA) was awarded the MOH for heroic action on May 21, 1951, near Munye-ri, Korea when he "single-handedly took on a hostile force occupying well-fortified positions on rugged terrain." Rodriguez retired from the U.S. Army after attaining the rank of Colonel. He died November 1, 2005.

U.S. Army Corporal Rodolfo (Rudy) P. Hernandez (Colton, CA) won the MOH for heroic action during a battle May 31, 1951, near Wontong-ni, Korea. His platoon came under attack by a numerically superior and hostile force. Although wounded in an exchange of grenade assaults, Cpl. Hernandez continued to fire into the ranks of the onrushing assailants until a ruptured cartridge rendered his rifle useless. He killed 6 of the enemy before falling unconscious from grenade, bayonet, and bullet wounds. His heroic actions momentarily halted the enemy's advance and enabled his platoon to counterattack and reclaim the lost ground.

During the Viet Nam conflict, other Latinos distinguished themselves for service "above and beyond the call of duty." U.S. Army Staff Sergeant and Green Beret Ra??l (Roy) P. Benavidez (Lindenau, TX); U.S. Navy Commander, pilot and POW Everett Alvarez, Jr. (Salinas, CA); U.S. Army Specialist 4 Hector Santiago-Colon (Salinas, PR); U.S. Army Specialist 4 Daniel Fernandez (Albuquerque, NM); and U.S. Army Captain Euripides Rubio (Ponce, PR) were among the 14 U.S. servicemen awarded their nation's highest military honor.

Bravery knows no borders

Latino immigrants have also played meaningful roles during times of war. They too have taken up arms and fought alongside U.S. forces in defense of our nation. In WWI, one immigrant serviceman became an international war hero.

Marcelino Serna was born April 26, 1896, in the Mexican state of Chihuahua. At age 20, he came to the U.S. in search of employment and worked in Kansas on maintenance crews for the Atcheson, Topeka & Santa Fe (AT&SF) and Union Pacific railroads. He also worked as an agricultural worker in southern Colorado's sugar beet fields.

In 1916, Serna volunteered for the U.S. Army and was assigned to Company B, 355th Infantry of the 89th Division. Most of his fellow soldiers were from Arizona, Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, South Dakota and Utah. They participated in some of the most rigorous campaigns of the European theater, including action in the Lucey Sector, Puvenelle Sector, Meuse-Argonne, St. Mihiel and Ennezin.

At St. Mihiel, Serna's unit was advancing in heavy rain, sloshing through thick brush, when a German machine gunner opened fire on his unit, killing 12 U.S. soldiers. Serna charged the gun emplacement and tossed four grenades into the machine gun position. Six Germans died, eight others came out with their hands up, which Serna held until reinforcements arrived.

On a subsequent mission, Serna single-handedly captured 24 enemy soldiers and killed 26 others with only a rifle, a handgun and hand grenades. General John J. Pershing, Commander-in-Chief of the American Expeditionary Forces, awarded Serna the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC) -- the second highest U.S. combat award.

A few days later, Field Marshal Foch, Supreme Commander of the Allied troops, awarded Serna the French Croix de Guerre for bravery. He was awarded two Croix de Guerre medals (with Palms), the Italian Croce al Merito di Guerra, the French Medaille Militaire, the French Commemorative Medal, WW I Victory Medal with five stars, the Victory Medal with three campaign bars, the French St. Mihiel Medaille, the French Verdun Medaille and two U.S. Purple Hearts. He returned from the war and became a naturalized U.S. citizen and to this day remains one of the most highly decorated soldiers in Texas's history; yet very few U.S. Americans know his name or ever learned of his wartime exploits and heroism.

Serna died in 1991 at the age of 95. Congressman Ronald D. Coleman (D-El Paso) introduced legislation in 1995 requesting that Serna be awarded the MOH posthumously. Representative Coleman stated that although allied countries had awarded Serna their highest honors, the U.S. still had not.

During World War II, the Mexican Air Force formed the Fuerza Aerea Expedicionaria Mexicana (Mexican Expeditionary Air Force) to provide military support to the USA. The 300 members of the 201st Mexican Fighter Squadron became the only veterans of a foreign war in Mexico's long history. The 201st flew 59 combat missions from the Philippine Islands until the war's end in 1945. Five P-47 Mexican combat pilots lost their lives in defense of democracy and freedom alongside the USA and the Allies.

In the second Iraq War, Marine Lance Corporal Jose Gutierrez of Guatemala was among the first of many undocumented immigrants to make the ultimate sacrifice for their "adopted" country. He died March 21, 2003 in combat near the Iraqi port city of Umm Qasr. Cpl. Gutierrez was not yet a U.S. citizen, but was granted citizenship under a 2002 Executive Order allowing relatives of those killed in combat to apply for "posthumous citizenship" -- a purely symbolic gesture that provides no benefits for the families of immigrants "killed in action" while safeguarding our nation and its principles.

In 2006, the U.S. Department of Defense reported 35,000 non-citizen immigrants were actively protecting our nation against the threat of 'terrorism' in the Middle East, yet less than half (15,000) were eligible for expedited naturalization. Immigrants represent a substantial number of our nation's active military personnel, especially when one considers that in 2010 slightly over one percent of the USA's total population was voluntarily putting their lives "at risk" to protect us, our families and the nation's commercial and political interests around the world.

No good deed goes unpunished

The 1960 war movie "Hell to Eternity" was based on the WWII exploits of one of the four Latinos whose MOH recommendations remain pending: Guy "Gabby" Galbad??n. In 1944, Gabald??n distinguished himself by "single-handedly" capturing nearly 1,500 Japanese prisoners on the islands of Saipan, Tinian and the Marianas in the South Pacific. In addition to his bravery, he possessed another secret weapon: a third language. He spoke Japanese, which he learned from his Japanese foster parents and Japanese-American friends in his East Los Angeles neighborhood before they were relocated to internment camps.

Private First Class (PFC) Galbad??n was awarded the Silver Star (later upgraded to the Navy Cross) for his daring feats. His citation read in part: "PFC Gabald??n entered enemy positions in caves, pillboxes, buildings and jungle brush and, in the face of direct enemy fire, obtained vital information and aided in the capture of over one thousand enemy civilians and enemy personnel." Known as "The Pied Piper of Saipan" -- for luring so many of the enemy to surrender without firing a shot -- Gabald??n has the distinction of capturing more enemy personnel than anyone else in the annals of U.S. military conflicts.

The producers of the movie felt compelled to attribute his heroic acts to someone other than a Latino by using a white European actor (Jeffrey Hunter) to portray an "Italian" soldier -- purposely omitting the fact that Galbad??n was an East Los Angeles-born Mexican-American.

Gabald??n died August 11, 2006. His consideration for a Congressional Medal of Honor, along with those of Marcelino Serna (WWI), Ramon Rodriguez (Vietnam) and Rafael Peralta (Iraq), were still pending.

Adding fuel to the fire

The Greek philosopher Aristotle said, "Dignity does not consist in possessing honors, but in deserving them." Yet, after so many examples of valiant service to their country Latinos still were not accorded the recognition or respect they had earned on the battlefields in defense of their country and its citizens. One such example is Felix Z. Longoria, Jr. of Three Rivers, TX, who was drafted into military service November 1944 and assigned to the U.S. Army's 27th Infantry Regiment in the Philippines. Seven months after beginning his tour of duty in the Pacific, Longoria was killed in action by a Japanese sniper.

When his remains were returned to his hometown in 1949, the director of the only funeral home in Three Rivers would not allow his wake services because he was a "Mexican" and "the whites would not like it." In addition to being denied funeral services, Pvt. Longoria had only one burial option: to be interred in the "Mexican" section of the only cemetery in town, which was separated from the "white" side by barbed wire. In Texas during the early to mid-1900s, as in other parts of the U.S. Southwest, Mexican Americans were considered non-white and suffered overt "racial" discrimination in public education, housing and employment -- similar to African Americans.

The New York Times brought national attention to "The Longoria Affair." Outraged by the insensitivity of the Three Rivers community, Tejanos organized under the newly formed American GI Forum, a military veterans organization, which with the assistance of then-U.S. Senator Lyndon B. Johnson, arrangements were made for Pvt. Longoria to be buried at the Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors. He became the first Mexican American veteran to be accorded this honor -- but only after being turned away by the townspeople of his hometown.

Unsung heroes

In spite of the domestic discrimination and barriers encountered for generations, Latinos continue to enlist in the U.S. armed forces at rates higher than their percentage of the population. During WWII alone, approximately one-half million Spanish-surnamed individuals served in the U.S. armed services. In combat divisions, they remain among the most highly decorated of U.S. ethnic groups. If one considers the percentage of Latinos who have courageously defended this nation in wars and military conflicts, the fact that their contributions still are not readily cited as examples of patriotism -- nor sufficiently shared by media with U.S. mainstream society -- is incredulous.

After viewing a 2002 Memorial Day television program featuring Medal of Honor winners, hosted by the late Tim Russert (NBC News' Washington Bureau Chief and host of "Meet the Press"), University of California-San Diego history professor Jorge Mariscal was shocked that not one of the many Latino MOH winners was mentioned. The Viet Nam war veteran -- whose father and uncles served honorably in WWII -- composed an Op-Ed commentary in which he asked: "How will our children learn their history if the society at large continues to ignore it? How will our neighbors overcome the tendency to view us as foreigners if our stories are not told? When will this country treat us with the dignity we have earned? If not on Memorial Day [or Veterans Day], then when?"

In spite of the patriotic traditions that run deep in his family, Mariscal became an active member of Project YANO (Youth and Non-Military Opportunities), an educational organization opposed to military recruiting of high school students. The organization is based in San Diego, CA -- home to one of the world's largest U.S. military complexes.

How many voices will it take?

Within the U.S. Latino community its military veterans are often referred to as the "Quiet Force." But their voices are being raised, thanks to efforts of the VOCES Oral History Project at the University of Texas-Austin's School of Journalism. The effort is the brainchild of Dr. Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez and was established in 1999 to address the void in U.S. history regarding involvement of the Latino community in WWII.

The staff, college students and community volunteers from across the country have worked diligently to chronicle the contributions made by Latinos and Latinas -- on the battlefields and home fronts. Close to a 1,000 stories are now recorded, digitized and available on the project's website, which are housed at the Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection, part of the internationally renowned University of Texas Libraries in Austin, TX.

The results of the project's first 10 years include a play "Voices of Valor," three books, a host of educational materials, and a photo exhibit; all of which can be accessed by teachers and professors from around the world. Many of the project's historically relevant photos have been used by the U.S. Air Force, the Japanese American Museum, the National WWII Museum, the Smithsonian Institute's National Museum for American History, and by various news and media organizations across the U.S.

Still, major mainstream media continues to overlook the role Latinos have played in defending our nation. In the highly touted 2008 Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) documentary, "The War" produced by Ken Burns and funded in part by taxpayer dollars, Latinos were again victims of symbolic annihilation. The 14.5-hour series on WW II raised the hackles of many in the Latino community because it failed to include any Latino contributions to the war efforts, despite the fact that nearly a half million served in that war.

The reason Burns gave for the omission: "We were going for universal stories of combat and not out to give coverage to the ethnic spectrum." The producer's response suggested ethnicity detracts from the ability to communicate universal stories. It is this "exclusive" perspective on the part of white Eurocentric Americans in the entertainment and media industries that continue to minimize U.S. Latino history and contributions.

The spoils of war

Racial and ethnic biases in the military have historically mirrored those of mainstream society, but serving in the armed forces has also allowed non-Hispanics and Latinos to interact and learn more about each other -- and their common interests. The sharing of foxholes, cigarettes and the pressures of war with a diverse band of brothers provided opportunities for U.S. Americans of all colors and creed to gain a better understanding of one another. With the onset of World War II, major shifts in population and employment patterns on the home front occurred that resulted in a rapid diversification of our nation's civilian workforce. After the war, and especially during the second half of the 20th century, Latinos followed employment opportunities and were transformed from a mostly rural to an urban population.

U.S. military service and wartime production factories offered a variety of new career and employment opportunities, higher incomes and increased interaction between white European Americans and Latinos. WWII (and the subsequent Korean and Viet Nam conflicts) also helped to redefine the U.S. Latino identity. In previous years, Latinos were thought to be mainly Mexican, Puerto Rican and Cuban. By the latter half of the 20th century, Colombians, Dominicans, El Salvadorans and others from throughout Latin America began to change the face of U.S. Latinos.

There were many benefits associated with military service, but perhaps the most important for Latinos was "The Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944," which was designed to provide a variety of benefits to returning war veterans. Better known as the "G.I. Bill," it provided federal funds to help veterans readjust to civilian life by defraying expenses related to medical care, home purchases, businesses start-ups, and education.

The legislation provided for tuition fees, subsistence, books and supplies, equipment, and counseling services for veterans to pursue a higher education. Unlike exclusionary legislation of the past, the G.I Bill was made available to all military veterans upon honorable discharge from active duty [including yours truly]. It is considered by many Latinos to be the single-most important educational and economic development legislation ever enacted by the U.S. government.

As for Latinos and their military service, if actions speak louder than words, then their actions should be resonating across our nation!

About Jim Estrada:
A former TV journalist, corporate executive and PR practitioner, he is an expert in Marketing and Corporate/Community Relations. The San Pedro native is an Air Force veteran and attended San Diego State University, Boston College and Harvard.
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