America's Hispanics in America's Wars
September 2002

By Col. Gilberto Villahermosa

In every war and on every battlefield, Americans from Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central and South America have risked their lives in defense of the United States. Although they served in the ranks of America’s military during the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, at the Alamo, and in the Mexican-American War, the Civil War was the first war in which Hispanics were represented in relatively significant numbers. At the outbreak of the war there were some 27,500 Mexican-Americans living in the United States. Some 2,550 joined the Confederate cause and 1,000 joined the Union Army. The New Mexico Volunteers, the oldest militia organization in the New Mexico territory, was incorporated into the Union Army shortly after the beginning of the war. Consisting of five regiments, it numbered 4,000 officers and soldiers. Col. Miguel E. Pino, a Mexican-American, commanded the 2nd Regiment, which fought at the Battle of Valverde in February and the Battle of Glorieta Pass in March 1862, helping to defeat a Confederate invasion of New Mexico. Afterward, the unit engaged in patrolling and minor skirmishing. Another six Mexican-American militia companies, including five infantry and one cavalry, were also raised in New Mexico for three months’ service. In Texas, the Union raised 12 companies of Mexican-American cavalry, originally organized into two regiments but later consolidated into one, the 1st Regiment of Texas Cavalry. In 1863 the U.S. government authorized the military governor of California to raise four companies of native Hispanic Californians in order to take advantage of their "extraordinary horsemanship." As a result, the 1st Battalion of Native Cavalry was formed with Maj. Salvador Vallejo of the California militia commanding. The battalion, with its 500 soldiers of Spanish and Mexican origin, served throughout the Department of the Pacific in California and Arizona. It guarded supply trains, fought against marauding bands of Confederate raiders and helped to defeat the Confederate invasion of New Mexico.
       Hispanics were also well represented in Confederate units such as 6th Missouri Infantry Regiment, the 55th Alabama Infantry Regiment, the 2nd Texas Mounted Rifles, the 1st Florida Cavalry Regiment and the 33rd Texas Cavalry Regiment, commanded by Col. Santos Benavides, the highest ranking Hispanic officer on the Confederate side. Others served in the Louisiana Zouaves Battalion, the Spanish Legion of the European Brigade, and the Spanish Guard of Mobile, Ala. Confederate militia formations with sizable Hispanic contingents included one independent infantry battalion and four independent infantry companies from New Mexico. Union Admiral David G. Farragut was the highest ranking and most famous Hispanic of the Civil War. His father, a Spaniard, had come to the United States in 1776 and fought for his adopted country in both the American Revolution and the War of 1812. The younger Farragut is best remembered for his command "Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!" during his attack into Mobile Bay, Ala., on August 5, 1864.
       Hispanic women were also represented in the ranks. Cuban-born Loretta Janeta Velasquez was one of the most famous woman soldiers. She enlisted in the Confederate Army masquerading as a man and fought at First Manassas, Ball’s Bluff and Fort Pillow. Discharged when her real gender was discovered, she rejoined and fought at Shiloh. Unmasked a second time, she ended her military career working as a Confederate spy. Approximately 10,000 Hispanics fought during the Civil War, including 4,000 from Texas. Philip Bazaar and John Ortega, both of the Union Navy, won the two Medals of Honor awarded to Hispanics during the war.
       Several thousand Hispanics from Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma and the Indian territories served in volunteer units during the Spanish-American War. The 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry, Col. Leonard Wood’s and Lt. Col. Theodore Roosevelt’s famed "Rough Riders," contained a number of Hispanic officers and troopers. Immediately following the war, a battalion of Puerto Rican volunteers was organized for constabulary duties on the island. Within the year, this unit was expanded into a two-battalion regiment and in 1908 it entered the Regular Army roles as the Puerto Rico Regiment. It would later be designated the 65th Infantry Regiment. Hispanics continued to serve with distinction after the Spanish-American War. A Mexican-American, Pvt. France Silva of the U.S. Marines, won the Medal of Honor during the 1900 Boxer Rebellion in China. As part of a contingent of marines from the USS Newark, Silva assisted in defending the British legation in Beijing until its relief by the allied army.
       Some 200,000 Hispanics were mobilized for World War I, the bulk being Mexican-Americans. They were integrated throughout the armed forces; however, the majority of the 18,000 Puerto Ricans who were inducted served in the island’s six segregated infantry regiments, guarding key installations in Puerto Rico and the Panama Canal zone. Three of these regiments, the 373rd, 374th, and 375th (a unit of black Puerto Ricans) made up the Provisional Division of Puerto Rico. The war ended before the unit could deploy overseas and it was demobilized in 1919. One Hispanic, David Barkley, of the 89th Infantry Division’s 356th Infantry Regiment, won the Medal of Honor posthumously for his actions near Pouilly, France on November 9, 1918.
       About 500,000 Hispanics served during World War II. Most were Mexican-Americans. Gen. Douglas MacArthur called the Arizona National Guard’s 158th Infantry Regiment (Bushmasters), which consisted of large numbers of Mexican and Native Americans, "one of the greatest fighting combat teams ever deployed for battle." A part of the 45th Infantry Division, the 158th served with distinction in the southwestern Pacific Theater, fighting for 312 days and inflicting 3,000 casualties on the Japanese while suffering about 500 American battle casualties. The 141st Infantry Regiment, part of the Texas National Guard’s 36th Infantry Division, was another unit with a relatively large Hispanic contingent. It fought in Italy and France and in 361 days of combat suffered almost 7,000 battle casualties, garnering three Medals of Honor, 31 Distinguished Service Crosses, almost 500 Silver Stars and almost 1,700 Bronze Stars. Hispanics in the 11th Airborne Division’s 511th Parachute Infantry Regiment, the 32nd Infantry Division’s 127th Infantry and 165th Infantry Regiments, and the 37th Infantry Division’s 148th Infantry Regiment garnered at least one Medal of Honor in each regiment.
       Although 350,000 Puerto Ricans registered for military service in World War II, only 65,000 were called to the colors. Most served in segregated units, like the Regular Army’s 65th Infantry Regiment or the Puerto Rican National Guard’s 295th and 296th Infantry Regiments in Puerto Rico, Panama, the Caribbean, Hawaii, North Africa, Italy, the Maritime Alps of France and Germany. Large numbers were also represented in support units, like the 245th Quartermaster Battalion, providing life-saving services and supplies. Some 200 Puerto Rican women served in the Women’s Army Corps during the war. Hispanic soldiers won 12 of the 440 Medals of Honor awarded during the war. Shortages of infantrymen in Europe and the Pacific could have been alleviated had the United States taken better advantage of the large numbers of Hispanics that registered for service but were never inducted.
       By the beginning of the Korean War there were about 20,000 Puerto Ricans serving in the U.S. military, the majority in the Army and Marines. With over 4,000 U.S. soldiers, Puerto Rico’s 65th Infantry Regiment arrived in Korea in September 1950 well led and well trained. The largest U.S. Infantry regiment on the American side, it fought in every major campaign of the war thereafter. Composed of Puerto Rican soldiers and sergeants and mostly continental officers, the 65th Infantry (Borinqueneers) won nine Distinguished Service Crosses, some 250 Silver Stars and more than 500 Bronze Stars for valor in three years of fighting, killing almost 6,000 communist soldiers and capturing another 2,000. Over the next three years, the 65th Infantry was awarded a Presidential Unit Citation, a Meritorious Unit Commendation, two Republic of Korea Presidential Unit Citations and the Gold Bravery Medal of Greece. The all-Puerto Rican unit was finally integrated in March 1953 and remained in Korea until November 1954. Governor Luis Muñoz Marin of Puerto Rico had offered the U.S. Army an all-Puerto Rican division consisting of the 65th, the 295th, and the 296th Regimental Combat Teams at the beginning of the war. The Department of Defense, however, turned down the offer. Had it accepted, the shortage of infantrymen at the beginning of the war could have been alleviated.
       Altogether, 148,000 Hispanics served in the U.S. military in Korea during the war, winning nine of the 131 Medals of Honor awarded. This number included 61,000 Puerto Ricans (including 18,000 from the Continental United States). Over the course of the war, more than 3,000 Puerto Ricans were killed or wounded. According to statistics compiled by the Office of the Governor of Puerto Rico shortly after the war, one of every 42 casualties suffered by U.S. forces was Puerto Rican. The island suffered one casualty for every 660 of its inhabitants as compared to one casualty for every 1,125 inhabitants of the continental United States. By the end of the Korean War, Puerto Ricans had been integrated throughout the Army.
       Approximately 80,000 Hispanics served in America’s armed forces during the country’s 10-year involvement in Vietnam, winning 13 of the 239 Medals of Honor awarded during the war. Special Forces MSgt. Roy P. Benavidez, a Mexican-American, is among the most famous Hispanic Medal of Honor holders of the Vietnam War. Taking charge of the extraction of a downed Special Forces team in May 1968, although seriously wounded during the rescue effort, he single-handedly saved the lives of eight men. Another Hispanic hero, Alfred Rascon, was awarded the Medal of Honor on February 8, 2000 for his heroic actions in March 1966 near Long Khanh province as a medic with the 173rd Airborne Brigade (Separate).
       Twenty thousand Hispanics took part in Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm (1990-1991), including 1,700 Puerto Rico National Guardsmen. By 1997, Hispanics made up almost a third of the infantry, artillery crews and specialists deployed to Bosnia for peacekeeping operations. At the time they constituted 12 percent of the U.S. population, 8 percent of the U.S. military and about 4 percent of the military’s officers. The Marines, with 12.5 percent, had the largest proportion of Hispanics, while the Air Force, with 4.8 had the smallest. The Navy had 9 percent and the Army had 8.1 percent. By November 2000, Hispanic representation in the military had climbed to almost 11 percent, although still only 4 percent of all the officers. The Marines had the highest representation with almost 14 percent, while the Air Force continued to have the lowest with slightly more than 7 percent. The Army and Navy both had about 11 percent. Hispanics have also been on the frontlines in the war on terrorism and in Afghanistan. Many Hispanics died at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 as a result of the terrorist attacks, and at least one Hispanic soldier has been killed in Afghanistan since the U.S. military operations began there.
       Over the years Hispanics have risen to the top ranks of the military profession. In 1964 Adm. Horacio Rivero, a Puerto Rican, became the Navy’s first Hispanic four-star admiral. In 1982 Gen. Richard E. Cavazos, a Mexican-American, became the Army’s first Hispanic four-star general. Cavazos served with the 65th Infantry Regiment during the Korean War, earning a Distinguished Service Cross on June 14, 1953 as a lieutenant during bitter outpost fighting. On July 2, 1998, Luis Caldera, a Mexican-American and West Point graduate, became the highest-ranking Hispanic to hold office in America when he became Secretary of the Army. During his tenure Caldera sought to increase the number of Hispanics in the military. The failure of nearly half of all Hispanics to graduate from high school, however, proved a major obstacle. Nonetheless, Hispanics will probably serve in increasing numbers on the front lines of America’s military.

COL. GILBERTO VILLAHERMOSA is the Chief, Combined Joint Task Force Coordination Branch of NATO’s Regional Headquarters Allied Forces North in Brunssum, The
Netherlands. An Armor officer, he has published articles and studies in several military magazines as well as for the former Soviet Army Studies Office and the U.S. Army Center of Military History.


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