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Unsung Heroes: The Latinos Who Served in World War II
Professor Robert Tate
January 08, 2014
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World War II was a time when the United States exhibited for great patriotism, the love
for country, and helping other nations. This mindset was grounded in The American Revolution
when our nation was born. There are other popular events that Americans celebrate such as D-
Day invasion of Normandy, France; paratroopers from the 82nd, 101st, and other Allied Forces
performed their combat jumps about nine hours before D-Day; The Pearl Harbor attacks; Battle
of Iwo Jima; and so on. Many Americans volunteered and contributed to the war which some of
them were from different races.
People have heard of The Tuskegee Program which is about the first African-Americans
who became pilots, and did various missions that made themselves famous. There were two
films that represented them. Americans have also heard about the Navajo Indians who played a
major role to the Marines and the Navy in the Pacific. The Japanese Fleet was highly intelligent
enough to decipher the US Naval code when the messages were intercepted, and discovered the
US Naval strategic plans. The Navajos was proposed to use their native language as a new code
to relay messages to different units or ships, and the Japanese were unable to understand their
language which gave the Americans an advantage over them. Also, there was film based on the
Navajo code talkers.
However, there was one particular race that was omitted from the World War II; the
Latinos. Why has their stories never surfaced, or does anyone even knew that Latinos served in
War World II? During the research, I was surprised that looking for Latino veterans was very
difficult. The main subject that kept coming up on the top of the list from the search engine was
The Zoot-Suit Race Riot. The Riot was about the California Police and military service members
were arresting and attacking Latinos who were wearing a zoot suit without probable cause
(Skitoff 662). Is that how history see Latinos during World War II? Why would people would
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only know about the riot? As persistence overcame doubt, I finally found more than enough
information about Latinos who served in WWII. Unfortunately, there was too much information
to disclose, so I have decided to research on how most of the Latinos enlisted, and three service
members that stood out the most.
In 1942, one year after US officially declared war; recruitment to serve in the war has
increased which led a shortage of workers to install military equipment and labors to support
both the war and meet the needs from the American population. The US and Mexican
government came up with a diplomatic agreement to allow Mexican workers to be granted US
residency to work in factories and agriculture on US soil. This was known as the US- Mexico
Bracero Program. Some of the Mexican workers and their relatives enlisted in the military for
citizenship, and serve their new home country. There were an estimated number of 250,000 to
400,000 Latinos who volunteered for WWII. Approximately 65,000 from 400,000 were Puerto
Ricans (Rochin 16). There were not an exact number of Latinos who enlisted, because according
to the Census Bureau during in the 1940s, Latinos were considered to be white. Some Latinos
were actually able to blend in white population with their light complexities and colored eyes.
Other Latinos changed their last names due to discrimination or other personal reasons. Most of
the Latinos and their regiments were heavily involved in the Philippine Islands campaign,
because Filipinos can understand Spanish.
Private Jose Martinez was born and raised in Taos, New
Mexico, and he was a Mexican decent. His comrades in the Army
called him “Joe” or “Joseph.” Martinez enlisted in the Army on
August 1942, and ordered to the 7th Infantry Division as an
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automatic rifleman on May 1943. He and his unit were sent to Holtz Bay on Attu Island where it
was located in the Bering Sea west from Alaska. Their mission was to take out the Japanese
forces in Attu Island, and keep the oncoming forces out. The reason was Attu Island was an
access to Alaska and straight to the states. About a little over 2 weeks stationed to the island,
they were attacked by the Japanese. Martinez his comrades launched a counter attack on the
Japanese that were trenching up the hill. He led his men to the nearest trench, and took out
several Japanese insurgents on his first attempt. His second attempt to the next trench is where he
was fatally shot about 50 yards up the hill from the first trench. Martinez was able paved the way
for the rest of the unit to stop the Japanese. For his valiant and bravery to inspire his fellow
soldiers to push back the Japanese forces, Private Martinez was the first Latino in American
military history to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor (Rochin 19).
The next Latino service member in WWII is Marine
Private Guy Gabaldon, and he is the most famous Marine in
his time. His friends from his unit called him “Gaby” for
short from his last name. Gabaldon was born in New
Mexico, but he was adopted from a Japanese-American
family who lived in East Los Angeles in California. As a
young boy, he learned how to read, write, speak Japanese,
and understood Japanese culture from his family. Gabaldon can also recall his experience in
encampment with his family. So, he and his siblings enlisted in the military to further prove their
patriotism to the US. Gabaldon enlisted in the Marine Corps to become a scout for an
intelligence regiment. In the Battle Saipan, Gabaldon was brave enough to enter in the caves
where the Japanese were hiding, and convinced them to surrender. The Japanese military were
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trained with the mentality that they will commit suicide or perform a Kamikaze attack, and
surrendering was not an option. This was known as The Bushido Code. With Gabaldon’s
extensive knowledge of the Japanese culture and their code, he was able to capture up to 1,000
Japanese, and surrender to the US military. With an integrated persona from the Marines,
Gabaldon also convinced the Japanese that Marines are not the type of men that they should
provoke. His was award the Navy Cross for his actions which is the second highest award in the
Navy/Marine Corps Department. Gabaldon was also considered for the Medal of Honor, but did
not go through. He appeared in television shows, and wrote several autobiographies about his
encampment, and his experience in Saipan (Rochin 18).
The final Latino service member that served in WWII
was Admiral Horacio Rivero Jr. of the US Navy. He was born
and raised in Ponce, Puerto Rico in 1910, and after high school,
he enrolled to the US Naval Academy in Annapolis in 1927. His
comrades gave him the nickname of “Rivets” because they had
trouble spelling or pronouncing his last name. Rivero graduated
from the Academy with distinguish honor for being third in his
class in 1931. During World War II he stationed to USS San
Juan which it was named after the capital city of Puerto Rico from 1942 to 1943. Rivero was a
Gunner Officer in the Pacific Ocean that his ship was involved in Guadalcanal, Gilbert Islands,
and Santa Cruz Islands. The Naval strategic plan was to jump on one island to the next until the
Navy was within reach of Japan. His assisted on taking down Japanese aircrafts and patrol boats
to protect his ship. In 1944, he was next stationed to USS Pittsburg on her final campaign on
Okinawa and Bataan. After World War, Rivero remained in the Navy, and eventually was
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promoted to become the first Latino with the rank of a 4-star Admiral and Chief of Naval
Operations in the mid-1960s (Pace).
These men were well-known for their actions during World War II among their peers, but
it is only a very small fraction of information of Latinos’ participation during the war. There is a
lot more history that the American people knew little about. For example, did they know that the
Mexican President Camacho did declared war on Germany and Japan in May 1942, and aided
the US Army Air Force by sending pilots of his own? The Mexican Air Force Squadron 201 also
known as “The Aztec Eagles” from the American troops performed air missions during the
Philippines campaign (Cole). Or does the American people were aware that Latinas also enlisted
in the US military to become nurses in the Navy, or interpreters to Dwight D. Eisenhower
himself? Or do the American people also know about the Latinos’ regiments such as the Santa Fe
Battalion, Puerto Rico 65th Infantry Regiment, 158th Regiment Combat Team, and 200th and
515th Coast Artillery Regiment? All those regiments were stationed in Puerto Rico, Arizona,
New Mexico, and Texas. The 200th and 515th were among the survivors of the Bataan Death
March. Last, do the American people know that there were 11 Latinos awarded the
Congressional Medal of Honor in World War II (Cole)?
Not only am I a military vet, but also a Latino of Mexican descent. I have great amount of
love for my country, and have pride on my heritage. Both of my culture and my US military
experiences is what made me the man I am today; proud, man of honor, and patriotic. I am also
unaware of the history among the predecessors of my kind; not only surprised, but disappointed.
I was disappointed due to the fact that for many of Latinos serving in World War II, their stories
are hardly brought out to the public. With the amount of resources I have researched, it is safe to
state the Latino veterans’ experiences make up about 25% to American military history in World
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War II. I was also disappointed that 70 years after World War II, I could not remember any
documentaries to explain the Latinos’ bravery and actions did during their fight. It almost sound
like the Latinos was swept under the rug as they were not relevant enough to be heard, because I
can speculate the Latino veterans are not White, Black, or Native American; it needs to change.
I can only hope from this paper could be a stepping stone for the rest of the country
would know about the Latino Americans, and their tremendous love for their country. There are
also research Latinos have been heavily involved to US history all the way up to The American
Revolution. It is important to the stories of our “veteranos” or Latino veterans that it should be
heard, because it is part of American history. Their sacrifices must be honored, and be treated as
an equal with the rest of the service members. It is in our Latin blood to be proud warriors
regardless of color or ethnic background to could inspire or motivate the younger generation to
be proud on where they come from, and feel patriotic to their country that most of us take for
granted. Maybe one day, our Latino veterans would finally have the recognition as American
Heroes as they deserve to be 70 years ago.
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“Admiral Horacio Rivero, US Navy.” Biographies of Naval History. Naval History and Heritage
Command. Web 10 Dec 2013. http://www.history.navy.mil/bios/rivero_horacio.htm.
Cole, Melanie. "G.I. Jose." Hispanic 8.10 (1995): 20. Academic Search Complete. Web. 12 Nov.
Goldstein, Richard. "Guy Gabaldon, 80, Hero of Battle of Saipan." New York Times 4 Sept.
2006: B5(L). Infotrac Newsstand. Web. 14 Nov. 2013.
“Los Veteranos: Latinos in World War II.” The Nation World War II Museum. Web. 12
Pace, Eric. "Adm. Horacio Rivero Jr., 90, vice chief of naval operations." New York Times 28
Sept. 2000: C27. Infotrac Newsstand. Web. 14 Nov. 2013.
Rochín, Refugio I. "US Latino patriots." Julian Samora Research Institute-Michigan State
University (2005): 1-58.
Sitkoff, Harvard. "Racial militancy and interracial violence in the Second World War." The
Journal of American History 58.3 (1971): 661-681.