History & Heritage


On the Battlefront

Latinos in America's Wars

HispanicOnline Staff


From Spanish allies during the American Revolution to Tejanos marching off to war in WWI and the distinguished service in WWII and Korea of "The Borinqueneers," the 65th Regimental Combat Team from Puerto Rico, Latinos have served the U.S. proudly and well.

From the time the original 13 colonies declared their independence from England in 1776, Hispanics have played a pivotal role in the defense of the U.S.

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Two hundred years of battlefield action has ensured the accumulation of fascinating facts and figures on U.S. Latino military history.

Spanish colonists donated troops and arms, and, in 1779, gave 1 million pesos to support the Revolutionary War effort. Their ranks included men like Bernardo de Galvez—for whom the city of Galveston, Texas, is named—who as governor of the Louisiana territory skillfully plied his diplomatic, financial and military skills on behalf of the American rebels; and Jorge Farragut, a Spaniard who fought in both the Revolutionary War and in the War of 1812, and whose legacy was carried on by his son, Admiral David Glasgow Farragut, perhaps the Civil War's best-known Hispanic. A hero of the Union Army, David Farragut's success in blocking Southern ports prompted Congress to create the rank of Rear Admiral to reward him for his valor.

This legacy of valor has been upheld by successive generations of Latinos through each and every war and conflict entered by the U.S.

During the Civil War, three Hispanic Americans earned Congressional Medals of Honor, the first time that decoration, the highest military honor bestowed by the U.S., was awarded. Although the allegiance of many Mexican Americans, who had acquired U.S. citizenship in 1848 through the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, was deeply divided, by the end of the struggle in 1865 nearly 10,000 had served in regular Army or volunteer units. Many Cubans, who habitually traveled back and forth between the mainland and the Caribbean island, also joined the war between the States, serving in both the Union and Confederate armies.

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Large numbers of Latinos, primarily Mexican Americans, served in the Spanish-American War and in WWI, although at the time the military was rife with discrimination against Hispanics. In 1917, just before the U.S. entered the war, Puerto Ricans were granted U.S. citizenship and became eligible for military service.

Subsequently, 18,000 Puerto Ricans served in WWI.

During WWII, the ranks of Latinos in the U.S. Armed Forces swelled to more than 400,000, a higher percentage than any other minority. Of these, at least 65,000 were Puerto Rican, including 200 puertoriqueñas who served in the Women's Army Corps.

Wartime Corridos

Listen and celebrate the stories of brave Latino soldiers as they went off to war.

 

In the mainland, for many Mexican Americans the war was an opportunity to enter the American mainstream. Many described their experiences in corridos, a popular genre in which a story is told through song. One corrido was written by Lorenzo Ybarra Banegas, a survivor of the infamous Bataan Death March in the Philippines. Another describes the exploits of Cleto Rodríguez of San Antonio, Texas, one of 12 Hispanics to earn the Medal of Honor during WWII.

While many Latinos fought valiantly, one particular company deserves special mention: Company E of the 141st Regiment of the 36th Texas Infantry Division was made up entirely of Spanish-speaking Americans. After 361 days of combat in Italy and France, the 141st Infantry Regiment sustained 1,126 killed, 5,000 wounded and more than 500 missing in action. In recognition of their extended service and valor, the members of the 141st were awarded 31 Distinguished Service Crosses, 12 Legion of Merits, 492 Silver Stars, 11 Soldier's Medals, 1,685 Bronze Stars and numerous other commendations and decorations.

1992 painting depicting the Puerto Rican 65th Infantry Regiment's bayonet charge against a Chinese division during the Korean War.
Photo courtesy U.S. Army Center for Military History.

Through Korea and Vietnam, Latinos continued their strong military tradition. The 65th Regimental Combat Team from Puerto Rico, known as "The Borinqueneers," distinguished itself in Korea in nine major campaigns and earned high praise from their commander, General William Harris, in his account of the unit, Puerto Rico's Fighting 65th U.S. Infantry: From San Juan to Chorwau.

"No ethnic group has greater pride in itself and its heritage than the Puerto Rican people," he wrote. "Nor have I encountered any that can be more dedicated and zealous in its support of the democratic principles for which the United States stands. Many Puerto Ricans have fought to the death to uphold them."

During the Vietnam conflict, approximately 80,000 Hispanic Americans served, while more than 20,000 Latino men and women participated in operations Desert Shield andDesert Storm during the 1990-1991 Persian Gulf War.

A Legacy of Valor

A new generation carries on a proud military tradition: At all three U.S. military academies, the percentage of Hispanic-origin students is on the rise.

Currently, there are more than 85,000 Hispanic Americans on active duty, representing approximately 7 percent of all active duty personnel. Latinos represent over 6.2 percent of the Army, 8.1 percent of the Navy, 11 percent of the Marine Corps, and 4.4 percent of the Air Force, numbers that should continue to increase as all three branches of the Armed Forces step up their recruitment of minorities and Latinos.