By Danielle DeSimone
Throughout U.S. history, Hispanic Americans have served proudly and bravely in all branches of our nation’s military. In honor of National Hispanic Heritage Month, which runs from September 15 - October 15, the USO is taking a moment to highlight the incredible courage and valor of five Hispanic Americans who put their duty before themselves.
1. Marcelino Serna
In search of work and a better life, Marcelino Serna emigrated from Mexico into the U.S. in 1916, when he was just 20 years old.
He settled in Texas where he worked illegally for several years until federal authorities detained him to verify his war draft status. Despite being a Mexican citizen, and to show his dedication to becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen, Serna begged the officials to allow him to enlist in the U.S. Army, rather than deport him. At the time, the horrific conditions of the trenches of World War I were common knowledge. Consequently, volunteers to enlist were not always easy to come by. Impressed by Serna’s offer, the federal officials allowed him to join the Army.
After basic training, Serna was shipped off to Europe, but once he arrived Army officials realized Serna was Mexican, not American, and offered to discharge him. Serna refused and insisted on serving.
While engaged with the enemy in France, Serna noticed a wounded German sniper and followed him back to his trench, where Serna threw three grenades, killing 26 enemy soldiers and capturing 24 more. Later, Gen. John J. Pershing awarded him with the Distinguished Service Cross, the second-highest U.S. military decoration. He was the first Hispanic American to receive the Distinguished Service Cross. Ferdinand Foch, Supreme Commander of the Allied Troops, also awarded Serna with the French Croix de Guerre for bravery.
Serna returned home to the U.S. as the most decorated soldier from Texas. In 1924, he became a U.S. citizen and settled in El Paso. He was never awarded the Medal of Honor, but there is currently an initiative to posthumously honor him with the award.
2. Joe P. Martínez
Joe P. Martínez was the first Hispanic American (and Coloradoan) to posthumously receive the Medal of Honor for his actions in World War II.
Originally from New Mexico, Martínez grew up in Colorado and was drafted into the Army when he was 21 years old. He fought in the final days of the spring 1943 Battle of Attu on the Aleutian Islands.
On May 26, Martínez and his regiment were pinned down by enemy fire. In an attempt to secure a key defensive position from the Japanese, Martínez led several assaults on enemy-filled trenches. In his determination, Martínez sometimes eliminated entire trenches of enemies entirely by himself. The other men, inspired by his bravery, followed him.
Martínez was mortally wounded when approaching the final enemy-occupied trench, but the defensive position was successfully taken by U.S. forces, leading to the end of the battle and – ultimately – Japanese occupation of the Aleutian Islands.
3. Carmen Contreras-Bozak
As the U.S. prepared to enter World War II, the government put out a call for women to take on new roles beyond the home. Today, we know these working women in World War II as Rosie the Riveters, WAVES, SPARs and others.
These new roles were a big change for women in American society, especially among the Hispanic American population. Back in the 1940s, Hispanic women were often discouraged within their own communities to take on roles outside of domestic life. But for Carmen Contreras-Bozak, a Puerto Rican from New York City, the call to duty was more important than a traditional, domestic lifestyle.
Inspired by the War Department and her own sense of patriotism, Contreras-Bozak decided to enlist in the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps; she was the first Hispanic American to serve in what would later be known as the Women’s Army Corps.
During WWII, the Army specifically recruited bilingual Hispanic women to work in cryptology, communications and interpretation. Contreras-Bozak volunteered to go to North Africa with one of these companies despite the extreme risk (at the beginning of the U.S. involvement in the war, service women were not treated the same as servicemen and did not have the same protections under international law as male soldiers if captured).
Upon arrival in country, Contreras-Bozak was assigned to the Signal Corps, where she sent and received coded messages between Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s headquarters in Algiers and the battlefield in Tunisia. Their encampment came under German fire often, but Contreras-Bozak continued to work for the general until an infection sent her to a stateside hospital in 1945. She was discharged as a technical sergeant, today’s equivalent of a sergeant (E-4), and received the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal, two Battle Stars, a World War II Victory Medal, an American Campaign Medal, a WAAC Service Medal and the Good Conduct Medal throughout her time in the Army.
4. Angel Mendez
Angel Mendez was a Puerto Rican U.S. Marine who was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross for his actions in the Vietnam War.
Originally from New York City, Mendez spent most of his childhood in an orphanage on Staten Island. He enlisted in the Marine Corps immediately after graduating from high school and was deployed to Vietnam after bootcamp.
While on a search and destroy mission, Mendez and his platoon were suddenly attacked by the Viet Cong. Mendez led a charge to assist Marines who were pinned down by enemy fire, exposing himself to attack. His platoon commander, Lt. Ronald D. Castille – who would go on to serve as Chief Justice on the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania – was severely wounded and unable to move. Mendez shielded Castille with his own body while attempting to bandage the wound. Then, he picked up Castille and carried him behind friendly lines.
As he did so, Mendez was shot in the shoulder. Two more Marines rushed to help him, but Mendez refused to let go of Castille and continued to shield Castille with his body during the retreat until Mendez himself was mortally wounded.
Mendez was posthumously promoted to sergeant and awarded the prestigious Navy Cross. A post office on Staten Island, where he grew up, was named in his honor and there is now a campaign underway for him to be posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.
5. Richard Edward Cavazos
Richard Edward Cavazos left behind a long legacy for Hispanic Americans – he was the first Mexican American to reach the rank of brigadier general and the first Hispanic American four-star general in the U.S. Army.
While serving as a first lieutenant in the Korean War, Cavazos led his company on three assaults on the enemy while under heavy fire. Each time, his men destroyed enemy equipment and eliminated enemy assailants. Even when UN was ordered to withdraw from the fighting area, Cavazos remained in the area, exposed to enemy fire, to search for missing men. One at a time, he carried five of his men behind friendly lines, refusing treatment for his own wounds until he was sure that the outpost was clear.
For these actions, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. Later, in the Vietnam War, he was awarded with yet another Distinguished Service Cross for his heroic actions in leadership while leading an assault on Viet Cong trenches.
Cavazos retired from the Army in 1984, after thirty-three years of service with his final command as head of the U.S. Army Forces Command. Throughout his career, he was also awarded a Silver Star, two Legion of Merit awards, five Bronze Stars with valor, a Purple Heart, a Combat Infantry Badge and a Parachutist Badge.
-This story was first published on USO.org in 2019. It has been updated in 2020.
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