Chapter 8: World War II and the Emerging Civil Rights Struggle

3. What were the Mexican American contributions during World War II?

Despite the continued discrimination and racism at home hundreds of thousands of Mexican Americans and Mexicans joined the armed services to fight to defend the United States.   Their experience served as a platform for later activism when they sought to redeem the promises that were made during the war for a more democratic society. 

More than two and a half million persons of Mexican descent lived in the Southwestern part of the United States when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.   Of that number more than half were native born U.S.  citizens, and probably about one third, or just fewer than one million, were men of draft age.   While there are no reliable statistics, impressionistic accounts indicate that large numbers of Mexican Americans either volunteered or were drafted into the armed services during World War II.    It is estimated that about 500,000 Mexican American men joint the armed services during the war. 

They volunteered for a variety of reasons: some sought escape from poverty and discrimination at home; others wanted adventure, or did so out of pride and a sense of manhood.   Some joined because their families expected them to contribute, some out of patriotic motives, and some because their friends or relatives had enlisted.    Raúl Morín, a veteran whose book Among the Valiant is a personal account of Mexican Americans during World War II, put it this way:

There are hundreds of stories that tell of the bravery and sacrifices of the Mexican American G.I.s during the war.    As has been noted by many historians, collectively as a group, the Mexican Americans earned more Congressional Medals of Honor, the nation’s highest award for bravery and valor, than any other: seventeen.   In addition to the accounts of unimaginable bravery and hardship are descriptions of the strength of friends and Mexicanidad.   The family back home learned of the experiences of their men folk only after the war, due to strict censorship of the mails.   Even after the war many veterans preferred to keep silent about their experiences despite their heroism.  Oscar Romero and Alfredo Sepulveda are two examples, one  a Chicano and the other a Mexicano, who distinguished themselves as heroes during the war and later became community leaders in San Diego, part of the generation that led the civil rights movement after the war.

Oscar Romero

Oscar Romero was a Chicano who was drafted into the Army in 1942. and was sent to  basic training in Little Rock, Arkansas, where they had many volunteers from Mexico.   The 76th Infantry Division in particular had many Chicanos from Southern California.   Oscar remembered having basic training with Maracario Garcia, who was from Guanajuato, Mexico, who received the Congressional Medal of Honor, and of serving with many other Mexicanos and Chicanos who gave their lives for the U.S.  during World War II.  Oscar was in the D-Day landing at Normandy and fought to liberate France.   Later when crossing the Rhine River, he received the Bronze Star for taking command of his platoon after the lieutenant and sergeant were killed.   After the war, Oscar was one of the founders of the all Chicano VFW Don Diego Post in Logan Heights in 1955.   He remembers that they formed the post because the local VFW did not want any Mexican or Chicano members.   Today Oscar is still active in the post along with his wife Ruth, who was a founder of the woman's auxiliary organizations for the post.

Alfredo Sepulveda

Mexicano immigrants also joined the service and later became activists.    Alfredo Sepulveda was born in 1920 in La Paz, Mexico and moved to Los Angeles with his family when he was six.   His family was related to the Sepulveda family who had owned a California rancho in the 1840s.   He became a professional boxer and got married before volunteering to join the armed services when the war broke out.   He remembers being rejected from flight school because he was a Mexican national.   He joined the paratroopers, fought at Normandy, and in the Battle of the Bulge, and was wounded three times.   Alfredo  won the Silver Star and Two Bronze stars, one with clusters for valiant action in WWII.   After World War II he worked as a truck driver and later moved to San Diego where he and his wife became leaders in the Don Diego Post of the VFW located in Logan Heights.