Like other ethnic groups of Americans, Hispanics were divided in their loyalties, fighting heroically for both the Union and Confederate armies. Most Hispanics were integrated into the regular Army or volunteer units, although some served in predominantly Hispanic units with their own officers. Hispanics were especially instrumental in protecting the Southwest against Confederate advances, most notably in California, Arizona and New Mexico.
A very unusual historical figure was a woman named Loreta Janeta Velazquez, who was born in Cuba. During the Civil War, she masqueraded as a Confederate soldier using the name of Lt. Harry T. Buford, enlisting in 1860 without her soldier-husband’s knowledge. According to her controversial biography and the confirmation of others, she fought fearlessly at the Battles of Bull Run, Ball’s Bluff and Fort Donelson, but was detected in New Orleans and discharged. Loreta Velasquez re-enlisted and fought at the Battle of Shiloh until rediscovered. She spied in both male and female disguises, and her bravery in the Civil War showed extraordinary courage and commitment.
Her biography can be read in the book, "The Woman In Battle: A Narrative of the Exploits, Adventures, and Travels of Madame Loreta Janeta Velasquez, Otherwise Known as Lieutenant Harry T. Buford, Confederate States Army," edited by C.J. Worthington, 1876. It should be mentioned that some men of her generation refute her case, arguing that it was impossible for a women to hide her body and womanly ways. The arguments have been countered by men and women who say that the Soldiers of the time could maintain privacy and bathed alone using buckets of water when possible. Such accounts make for interesting debates of the Civil War.
In 1898, the United States acquired Puerto Rico in the Treaty of Paris that ended the Spanish-American War. By the following year, Congress had authorized raising a unit of volunteer Soldiers in the newly acquired territory.
Several thousand Hispanic volunteers, mostly from the southwestern United States, fought with distinction in the U.S. Army during the Spanish-American War. Capt. Maximiliano Luna and others who comprised a portion of the famous 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry with Col. Theodore Roosevelt -- better known as the "Rough Riders" -- fought in Cuba. George Armijo, another Rough Rider, later became a member of Congress.
In May 1917, two months after legislation granting United States citizenship to individuals born in Puerto Rico was signed into law, and one month after the United States entered World War I, the authorized unit of volunteer Soldiers were transferred to the Panama Canal Zone. U.S. Army policy at the time restricted most segregated units to noncombat roles, even though the regiment could have contributed to the fighting effort.
According to House concurrent resolution 253, the U.S. Army had approximately 200,000 active personnel at the beginning of the war. An Act of Congress was passed in 1917 to obtain needed manpower, and the Hispanic community was eager to serve its country. They included both native-born Soldiers, mostly of Mexican descent, and new immigrants from Latin America, Mexico and Spain. In June 1920, the unit was re-designated as the 65th Infantry Regiment and served as the U.S. military's last segregated unit composed primarily of Hispanic Soldiers.
Hispanic Soldiers like Nicholas Lucero and Marcelino Serna served with great distinction. Lucero received the French Croix de Guerre during World War I for destroying two German machine gun nests and maintaining constant fire for three hours. Serna received the Distinguished Service Cross for the single-handed capture of 24 enemy soldiers.
In January 1943, 13 months after the attack on Pearl Harbor that marked the entry of the United States into World War II, the 65th Infantry Regiment again deployed to the Panama Canal Zone before deploying overseas during the spring of 1944. Despite relatively limited combat service in World War II, the regiment suffered casualties in the course of defending against enemy attacks, with individual Soldiers earning one Distinguished Service Cross, two Silver Stars, two Bronze Stars and 90 Purple Hearts. The regiment received campaign participation credit for Rome-Arno, Rhineland, Ardennes-Alsace, and Central Europe.
According to House concurrent resolution 253, approximately 400,000 to 500,000 Hispanic service members served in the U.S. Armed Forces during World War II. Gen. Douglas MacArthur called the Arizona National Guard's 158th Infantry Regiment, the "Bushmasters," "One of the greatest fighting combat teams ever deployed for battle." The regiment was comprised of many Hispanic Soldiers.
This proud Arizona National Guard unit, the 158th Infantry (Bushmasters), organized as the Arizona Volunteer Infantry for the Indian campaigns in 1865, had its motto, "Cuidado" -- Take Care. Mustering in the great Southwest desert, the unit was mainly Mexican-American and North American Indian from 20 tribes. Expanded in Panama, it was one of World War II's few organizations to complete the trail from Down Under to Japan.
Cries of "Banzai" rang through the jungles -- the staccato of enemy machine guns, mortars and rifles broke through the jungle silence. The bayonet charges were suicidal, but the 158th Regimental Combat Team, the "Bushmasters," repulsed the enemy and advanced. It fought day after day in critical battles, to open the Visayan passages for allied shipping in the Pacific. The merciless campaign lasted two months in terrain laced with tank traps, wires, mines and bamboo thickets.
The Texas National Guard's 141st Infantry Regiment fought in France and Italy for one year and suffered thousands of casualties. The entire list of mostly Hispanic units that were cited for valor in World War II would be several pages long. Countless Hispanic Soldiers served in other integrated units that fought bravely, earning countless medals for valor and bringing victory for the United States and its Allies in both the European and Pacific theaters of operation.
A total of six Hispanic-Americans were flying aces in World War II and the Korean War. Approximately 200 Puerto Rican women served in the Women’s Army Corps and served in the critical role of Code Talkers to avoid enemy intelligence.
When the Korean War broke out, Hispanic-Americans again answered the call to duty as they, their brothers, cousins, and friends had done in World War II. Many of the Hispanic Soldiers who fought in Korea were members of the all-Hispanic U.S. Army unit, the 65th Infantry Regiment, which fought in every major campaign of the war. The 65th Infantry Regiment, nicknamed "The Borinqueneers," originated from the Borinquen -- one of the native Taino indian names for the island of Puerto Rico. Many members of the 65th were direct descendants of that tribe.
One of the first opportunities the regiment had to prove its combat worthiness arose on the eve of the Korean War during Operation PORTREX, one of the largest military exercises up until that point, where the regiment distinguished itself by repelling an offensive consisting of more than 32,000 troops from the 82nd Airborne Division and the U.S. Marine Corps, supported by the Navy and Air Force, thereby demonstrating that the regiment could hold its own against some of the best-trained forces in the U.S. military.
On Aug. 25, 1950, two months into the Korean War, with the U.S. Army's situation in Korea deteriorating, the Department of the Army's headquarters decided to bolster the 3rd Infantry Division, and owing in part to the 65th Infantry Regiment's outstanding performance during Operation PORTREX, it was among the units selected for the combat assignment. The decision to send the regiment to Korea and attach it to the 3rd Infantry Division was a landmark change in the U.S. military's racial and ethnic policy.
Fighting as a segregated unit from 1950 to 1952, the regiment participated in some of the fiercest battles of the war, and its toughness, courage and loyalty earned the admiration of many who had previously harbored reservations about Puerto Rican Soldiers based on lack of previous fighting experience and negative stereotypes, including Brig. Gen. William W. Harris, whose experience eventually led him to regard the regiment as "the best damn Soldiers that I had ever seen."
One of the most significant battles took place near Yongam-ni in October when the regiment routed a force of 400 enemy troops. By the end of the month, the regiment had taken 921 prisoners while killing or wounding more than 600 enemy soldiers. Its success led Gen. Douglas MacArthur, commander-in-chief of the United Nations Command in Korea, to observe that the Regiment was “showing magnificent ability and courage in field operations."
In late January 1951, the regiment were below the South Korean capital of Seoul, under orders to take two hills being held by the Chinese 149th Division. The assault began Jan. 31, and took three days. On the morning of the third day, with the top of the hills within reach, two battalions of the 65th Regiment fixed bayonets and charged straight at the enemy positions. The Chinese fled. The regiment is credited with capturing 2,086 enemy soldiers and killing 5,905.
During their service in Korea, the men of the 65th Infantry Regiment won four Distinguished Service Crosses and 125 Silver Stars. "The Borinqueneers" also were awarded the American Presidential and Meritorious Unit Commendations, two Korean Presidential Unit Citations and the Greek Gold Medal for Bravery. President Barack Obama signed H.R. 1726 to award a Congressional Gold Medal to the Borinqueneers, in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building's South Court Auditorium, June 10, 2014. President Obama highlighted:
Shortly after Puerto Rico became part of the United States in 1898, a regiment of Puerto Rican Soldiers was formed, and they served our nation bravely ever since. In World War I, they defended the homeland and patrolled the Panama Canal Zone. In World War II, they fought in Europe. In Korea, they fought in mud and snow. They are the 65th Infantry Regime, U.S. Army. They are also known as Borinqueneers.
They were the last recorded battalion-sized bayonet assault in the history of the U.S. Army and the nation’s last segregated Army unit.
By 1952, senior U.S. commanders ordered that Soldiers from Puerto Rico would not be limited to serve in the 65th Infantry Regiment, but would integrate in non-segregated units both inside and outside the 3rd Infantry Division. This was a major milestone in U.S. Army policy that, paradoxically, harmed the 65th Infantry Regiment by depriving it of some of Puerto Rico's most able Soldiers.
Altogether, approximately 150,000 Hispanics served in the war, including 61,000 Puerto Ricans -- and during that war, many earned awards for valor, from Bronze Star Medals to Medals of Honor. Among the notable recipients is Gen. Richard E. Cavazos, who served with the 65th Infantry Regiment in Korea and later in Vietnam, and became the Army's first Hispanic four-star general. Learn more about the 65th Infantry in Korea in "Honor and Fidelity".
More than 80,000 Hispanic-Americans served with distinction in Vietnam, from the Battle for Hue City to the Siege of Khe Sanh.
President Barack Obama presented 24 Army veterans with the Medal of Honor in one of the largest Medal of Honor ceremonies in history, March 18, 2014. Each of these Soldiers’ bravery was previously recognized by the award of the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation’s second highest award; that award was upgraded to the Medal of Honor. Congressional review and the 2002 National Defense Authorization Act prompted a review of Jewish-American and Hispanic-American veteran war records from WWII, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. During the review, records of several Soldiers of neither Jewish nor Hispanic descent were found to display criteria worthy of the Medal of Honor. The 2002 NDAA was amended to allow these Soldiers to be honored with the upgrade -- in addition to the Jewish and Hispanic-American Soldiers.
View the Vietnam War Medal of Honor recipients and read their courageous stories at Valor 24
Operation Desert Shield (the air war) and Operation Desert Storm (the land war) provided another opportunity for Hispanics to serve their country. This war brought together a coalition military force composed of NATO member countries to oppose Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, our ally and an oil-rich nation, Aug. 2, 1990.
Approximately 20,000 Hispanic servicemen and women participated in Operation Desert Shield/Storm. According to Defense Manpower Data Center statistics, Hispanics comprised 4.2 percent of the Army representation in the Persian Gulf theater during the war.
Thousands of men and women of Hispanic heritage are placing their boots on the ground in more than 120 countries around the world in contingency operations. The international military campaign from the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks started the Global War on Terrorism, Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. In 2013, President Barack Obama announced that the United States were no longer pursuing a “War on Terror,” as the military focus should be on specific enemies rather than a tactic.
The Hispanic community continues its selfless sacrifice in bringing freedom to people in other countries, making major sacrifices, and risking their lives to bring justice to terrorists and lay a foundation for a sustainable peace.
Hispanics have a proud and indeed enviable record of military service, dating all the way back to the Civil War. Whether their heritage can be traced to Spain, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Mexico, or one of dozens of other Spanish-speaking countries or cultures, they've answered the "call to duty," defending America with unwavering valor and honor.
Today, thousands of Hispanic-American Soldiers are fighting contingency operations throughout the world -- engaging the enemy on distant shores, as well as protecting the homeland in the most noble of endeavors. Today, just as in generations past, Hispanic Soldiers -- both men and women -- can be especially proud of their significant contributions to the war effort and embodying the U.S. Army’s values that unite all service members as one.