By Joe Olvera ©, 2011
Hispanic Americans have always comported themselves well in the U.S. military – from its earliest beginnings to the present-day conflicts in Iraq and in Afghanistan. Hispanic military veterans like to point out that they constitute the ethnic group that has received the most U.S. Medals of Honor – the nation’s highest award for valor on the fields of battle.
The first such Hispanic is one Private France Silva, who became, as a member of the U.S. Marine Corps, the first Hispanic to be awarded the Medal of Honor during the Boxer Rebellion. The story, in the Internet’s Wikipedia, goes that Silva (1876-1951), who joined the Marines in 1899 in San Francisco was with the 1st Regiment under the command of Major Littleton Waller, aboard the USS Newark. On May 20, 1900, the first modern cruiser in the U.S. Navy’s fleet sailed for China to help land reinforcements to relive the legations under siege by the Boxers at Peking, China.
On June 19, 1900, the 1st Regiment attempted to take the city of Tientsin and failed. Then, on June 23, the Regiment, under the command of Waller entered Tientsin in their second attempt after a Japanese blew open a gate to allow the Chinese to escape. Private Silva, who was seriously wounded, and two sailors, Navy Seaman Axel Westermark and Chief Machinist Emil Peterson, were awarded the Medal of Honor for their defense of the civilian compound at Peking. They defended the walled city from June 28 until the fall of the city which occurred on August 17.
Tales of heroics by Hispanics during wartime abound in the annals of U.S. military history. In another tale of heroism, Private Joe Nichols Viera of the 78th Company, 6th Regiment, 2nd Marine Division, was awarded the Navy Cross Medal – the second highest award that the U.s. Navy bestows on its members for heroism or distinguished service. On October 3, 1918, Vieta captured three enemy machine gun nests and with the aid of another Marine captured forty enemy soldiers in the Battle of Blanc Mont Ridge. He was also awarded the Distinguished Service Cross – the United States Army’s second highest medal – for the same action.
The story of Guy Gabaldon also resonates throughout military history. Private First Class Gabaldon is credited with capturing more than 1,000 Japanese military and civilian personnel. Gabaldon, who died in 2006, had lived with his friend’s Japanese family in California from the age of 12, becoming, of course, fluent in Japanese. At the beginning of World War II, his adoptive family was placed in a relocation camp.
He joined the Marines when he was only 17 and was a PFC when his unit was engaged in the Battle of Saipan in 1944. Gabaldon, who acted as the Japanese interpreter for the Second Marines, but, working alone in the front lines, entered enemy caves, pillboxes, buildings and jungle brush, often in the face of enemy firepower, and succeeded in obtaining vital military information. He also succeeded in convincing well over 1,000 enemy soldiers and civilians to surrender. Although he was nominated for the Medal of Honor, he was only awarded the Silver Star – that was later upgraded to the Navy Cross. He managed to turn in more enemy soldiers than Sergeant Alvin York, who won the Medal of Honor for capturing 132 Germans during World War I. Gabaldon’s life was later captured in the film “Hell to Eternity,” starring Jeffrey Hunter as Gabaldon.
Individually, Hispanics have been at the forefront of U.S. wars from the very beginning. Their numbers in the military have fluctuated. The Marines account for the largest contingent of Hispanics, comprising 18 percent of enlisted Marines today, up from 15 percent when the Iraq war began. This is attributed to the fact that the Marines have implemented an aggressive recruitment program directed towards Hispanics, the nation’s largest ethnic or minority group according to the 2005 census.
Although statistics on Hispanics in the military were not kept until the 1970s, estimates are that 2.3 percent to 4.7 percent of Hispanics served during World War II. The exact number is not known because they were integrated into the general white population census count. Another factor is that the estimates which have been made only take into account individuals whose surname is of Hispanic origin, when in reality there are many Hispanics with non-Hispanic surnames who have also served.
Prior to World War II, traditional Hispanic cultural values expected women to be homemakers, thus they rarely left the home to earn an income. As such, women were discouraged from joining the military. However, World War II helped to change that perception with the creation of the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve. Women such as Corporal Maria Torres Maes could attune to certain administrative duties left open by the men who were reassigned to combat zones. After completing boot camp at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, she was sent to Quartermaster School and assigned to the Marine Corps Base at Quantico, Virginia.
As for Hispanic representation in the U.S. military, the numbers vary from decade to decade. During the 1960s, Hispanics constituted about 5 percent of all active soldiers. Hispanic war protesters in 1970, however, tagged the number at 20 percent by saying that Hispanics were only 5 percent of the U.S. population, but, were 20 percent of the casualties, hence the Chicano Moratorium Against the Vietnam War in 1970 in Los Angeles, California, a protest that saw the death of Chicano journalist Ruben Salazar. The government, of course, had a set of different figures. Estimates are that about 170,000 Hispanics served in Vietnam.
In a more modern era, for example, at the end of September, 2001, there were 109,487 Hispanics in the enlisted ranks, making up almost 10 percent of the enlisted force. The difference in numbers could be because during the Vietnam War, the draft took many young Hispanic men straight out of the barrio. Today’s military, in which the draft has been eliminated, Hispanics still make up a sizable portion of all soldiers. If Republicans have their way, in which undocumented immigrants could obtain U.S. citizenship by enlisting in the armed forces that number will certainly increase.