Hispanics in Military Service

Houston Institute for Culture 
By John P. Schmal

On Memorial Day, Americans will observe Memorial Day. At this time, we honor the men and women who have served in the American armed forces and paid the ultimate price for their loyalty and dedication. 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 decent 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 order."

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 them."

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."

Copyright , by John P. Schmal. Originally published by the Puerto Rico Herald, November 11, 1999. Read more articles by John Schmal.


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.

John Schmal is an historian, genealogist, and lecturer. With his friend Donna Morales, he recently coauthored "Mexican-American Genealogical Research: Following the Paper Trail to Mexico" (Heritage Books, 2002). He has degrees in History (Loyola-Marymount University) and Geography (St. Cloud State University) and is a board member of the Society of Hispanic Historical Ancestral Research (SHHAR). He is an associate editor of SHHAR's online monthly newsletter, John is presently collaborating with illustrator Eddie Martinez on a manuscript entitled "Indigenous Mexico: Past and Present."