World War II

Mexican Americans in World War II

Mexican Americans in the Service

People of Mexican ancestry have a long and distinguished career in United States military history, serving in the American Revolution and in every military operation since then. Their heroism was especially prominent during World War II when the United States joined the Allies against the Axis Powers in 1941.

Latinas’ Contribution to the War Effort

Carmen Contreras-Bozak. (Cortesía de US Latino & Latina World War II Oral History Project de la Universidad de Texas en Austin)

Carmen Contreras-Bozak. (Cortesía de US Latino & Latina World War II Oral History Project de la Universidad de Texas en Austin)

Many Latinas contributed to military efforts by joining the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps (later shortened to the Women’s Army Corps, WAC), an official organization of the army that filled non-combatant jobs. Carmen Contreras- Bozak, born in Cayey, Puerto Rico, was a member of the first WAC company to go overseas. She earned the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with two Battle Stars, the World War II Victory Medal, an American Campaign Medal, the Good Conduct Medal and the WAC Service Medal. With the recruitment of Latino men into the military, the emerging need for bilingual nurses was filled by Latinas. This was certainly the case for Carmen Lozano Dumler, of Puerto Rico, who rose to the position of Second Lieutenant during her service as a nurse in WAC.

With more men enlisting in the armed forces, women, including Latinas contributed their efforts on the home front by occupying jobs previously held by men such as in munitions manufacturing plants. These women were known as “Rosies” after the character “Rosie the Riveter.” When the war ended women who had been motivated to enter the workforce were forced by social and cultural expectations to assume their previous roles as homemakers, while others felt empowered to remain in the workforce.

Latinos in the Military
Did You Know?

Sargento José M. López recibe la Medalla de Honor. (Cortesía de US Latino & Latina World War II Oral History Project de la Universidad de Texas en Austin)

Sargento José M. López receives the Medal of Honor. (Courtesy of the Latina World War II Oral History Project, University of Texas Austin)

Both Mexican Americans and Mexican nationals who grew up in the United States served in the military during World War II.

  • Out of 16.2 million Americans in the armed services during World War II, between 250,000 and 750,000 were of Mexican ancestry.
  • In total, thirteen Latino servicemen earned the Medal of Honor: Lucian Adams, Rudolph B. Dávila, Marcario García, Harold Gonsalves, David M. Gonzáles, Silvestre S. Herrera, José M. López, Joe P. Martínez, Manuel Pérez, Jr., Cleto Rodríguez, Alejandro R. Renteria Ruiz, José F. Valdez and Ysmael R. Villegas.
  • After the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the 200th and 515th Coast Artillery Units of the New Mexico National Guard, composed largely of Latinos and Spanish speakers, were specifically selected to fight in the Philippines at the Battle of Bataan. Members of these infantry units became survivors of the Bataan Death March, a 90-mile forcible transfer of Allied prisoners of war captured by Japanese forces.
  • In Italy and France the 141st Regime of the 36th Texas Infantry Division, made up entirely of Spanish-speaking Texans, fought for 361 days. There were 1,126 killed, 5,000 wounded and more than 500 missing in action.
  • The highest ranking Mexican American officers in World War II were Major Lieutenant Pedro Augusto del Valle in the Marine Corps and Lieutenant General Elwood R. Quesada of the Army Air Force.
  • East Los Angeles native, Guy L. Gabaldon, a Marine in the Pacific, was known as the Pied Piper of Saipan because his knowledge of Japanese helped capture hundreds of Japanese prisoners of war.

War on the Home Front

Josephine Ledesma teaches a soldier how to repair the fuselage of an airplane at Randolph Air Field, San Antonio, in January 1942. (Courtesy of the U.S. Latino & Latina World War II Oral History Project at The University of Texas at Austin)

Josephine Ledesma teaches a soldier how to repair the fuselage of an airplane at Randolph Air Field, San Antonio, in January 1942. (Courtesy of the U.S. Latino & Latina World War II Oral History Project at The University of Texas at Austin)

After serving valiantly for the United States, servicemen of Mexican descent were welcomed home as war heroes. This welcome was short lived due to continuing racial discrimination. In spite of their military service, these veterans of Mexican origin were still denied service in restaurants, access to public facilities and even burial in veteran cemeteries. Sergeant Marcario García, one of the five Texan-Mexicans to receive the Medal of Honor was denied service at a Texas restaurant. The familiy of Félix Longoria, who was killed in the Philippines in the line of duty, was denied use of a funeral home for his wake because of his Mexican background. Yet returning veterans responded to these experiences by creating their own organizations to demand social justice. In 1948, World War II veteran Héctor García founded the American G.I. Forum dedicated to Mexican American World War II veterans. Marine corps veteran Balton Llanes stated:

“Mexican American soldiers shed at least a quarter of blood spilled at Bataan…What they want now is a decent job, a decent home, and a chance to live peacefully in the community. They don’t want to be shot at in the dark.” (McWilliams, 1990)

After the war, Mexican American veterans, both men and women, returned to their communities with new skills they had learned while serving in the war effort. This training allowed them to take jobs that had been previously denied to them. Mexican Americans became welders, plumbers and riveters at shipyards and aircraft plants. In addition, the G.I. Bill allowed veterans to take advantage of new social services and opportunities, such as low mortgage loans, free educational opportunities and job placement, which provided them with the ability to climb the social economic ladder. These benefits improved the lives of the Chicano community in ensuing years.