The United States has long been the most diverse country on earth — our slogan E Pluribus Unum proclaims that out of many people we are one nation. But we have frequently had trouble living up to this ideal.
The Second World War provided an unprecedented chance for African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, Filipinos, Chinese Americans, Jewish Americans, Japanese Americans, and other minorities, to break the restraints and limitations of the past, and for the first time participate fully in American life.
Early on in the war, African Americans adopted the concept of a “Double Victory” — the idea of winning the war abroad while at the same time fighting for civil rights at home. The “Double V” could just as well have applied to a wide range of other ethnic groups that filled the ranks of the American military. Japanese Americans and African Americans were in the unique position of being forced to serve only in segregated units. But other minorities also confronted prejudice, both at home and in the military itself.
“I think it was little Texas in the Marine Corps and as you know Texans and Mexicans ... weren’t exactly bosom buddies in those days,” Mexican-American Marine Bill Lansford remembered. “As the war advanced and we went on through, these southern guys began seeing that we weren’t what they thought we were. And we began seeing that they weren’t what we thought they were. And being Marines was kind of a melting pot, and we all got together. It was like a mini-United States, you know, where you got Jews, you got Italians, you got Indians — and they all learn to live together.”
Mexican Americans and other Latinos volunteered for the military in great numbers. But because they were incorporated into the general military population, the armed forces did not keep a separate count of their enlistment, and we will never know the exact number of Latinos who served. Like so many of their fellow Americans serving in the war, Latinos more than proved their courage and dedication in battle.
Pete Arias, who earned a promotion in Carlson’s Raiders, went from following others to leading troops into combat. “These guys I used to lead, they didn’t know that I was as scared as much as they were. But you don't show it. You can’t. Otherwise, nobody will follow ya.”
Among the many Latino heroes of the war was private Guy Louis Gabaldon. A Mexican American raised in East Los Angeles, Gabaldon had been adopted by a Japanese-American family at the age of twelve and became conversant in Japanese. When the war came and his foster family was sent off to an internment camp, Gabaldon, just 17, joined the Marines. He was sent to the Pacific and saw action on Saipan.
In his first test of combat, Gabaldon killed thirty-three Japanese soldiers, and then single-handedly tried to convince many of the other surrounded Japanese soldiers on the island to surrender. Through a combination of quick thinking and a basic command of the Japanese language, Gabaldon managed to capture eight hundred Japanese prisoners, saving not only the lives of the Japanese soldiers themselves, but also those of countless Americans who would have confronted them in battle.
Like Guy Gabaldon, Latinos served in integrated units, fighting side-by-side with people from many different ethnic groups. But the armed forces did include a few predominantly Hispanic units, including the 65th Infantry Regiment from Puerto Rico, which served in North Africa and Europe. Another Army unit, the 158th Regimental Combat Team, was made up largely of Mexican Americans and Native Americans from Arizona. The 158th — known as the Bushmasters — distinguished themselves in battle throughout the Pacific Theater, participating in fierce fighting in New Guinea and the Philippines. When the war ended, they were poised to help spearhead the planned invasion of mainland Japan. Reflecting on their important role in helping win the war in the Pacific, General Douglas MacArthur described the Bushmasters as “the greatest fighting combat team ever deployed for battle.”
Native Americans also enlisted in large numbers, with some 45,000 serving in the armed forces, a figure equal to more than ten percent of the Indian population at the time. Navajo “Code Talkers,” whose ranks exceeded 400 during the course of the war, served in all six Marine divisions. The Code Talkers’ primary job was to transmit confidential information in their native dialect in order to communicate tactics, troop movements, orders and other vital battlefield information via telegraphs and radios. Nobody outside of the Navajos themselves could understand their language, and the Code Talkers took advantage of their unique linguistic skills to provide a critical tactical advantage to the Marines.
Many Native Americans came to the war steeped in age-old warrior traditions. “I was ready to go overseas, and a cousin of mine had just come back from Europe, you know. He was a tail gunner,” remembered Joe Medicine Crow of the Crow Nation. “And before he left, a medicine man, a Sun Dance medicine man called Sacred Powers, gave my cousin an eagle feather, a fluffy feather painted yellow. ‘All right,’ he said, ‘Put that inside of your helmet, then she’ll protect you.’ So long as that, that sacred, protective feather was in my helmet, why, I was never afraid of anything.”
In the spring of 1945, with the Germans still desperately fighting in Europe, Medicine Crow performed the four traditional “war deeds” that are required to become a tribal chief. While serving in the 103rd Infantry Division, he was able to lead a victorious war party, touch an enemy and then disarm him, and steal his enemy’s horses. He is the last Crow Indian to become a chief.
Despite the role that Americans of all ethnicities played in winning the war, many victorious troops returned home to find that little had changed for minorities in America. When they went off to war, Latino recruits had embraced the slogan “Americans All,” to express their willingness to fight on behalf of a country that in many cases had marginalized them and denied them equal opportunities at home. But the old prejudices would not always disappear easily. Staff Sergeant Macario Garcia, recipient of the Medal of Honor for his heroic actions fighting in Germany, was refused service a café in Richmond, Texas in 1945. The café did not serve Mexican Americans. When the remains of Private Felix Longoria, who had been killed in action in the Philippines, returned to his hometown of Three Rivers, Texas, in 1949, the local funeral home refused to bury his body because he was Mexican American.
These ugly incidents did not go unnoticed. A civil rights awareness had been awakened among returning veterans, many of whom were inspired by what they experienced in the military to demand equality in civilian life. During the years after the Second World War, veterans and other Americans waged civil rights struggles that would — like the war itself — change America forever.
The 158th Regimental Combat Team, known as the "Bushmasters," was comprised mostly of Mexican and Native Americans from Arizona. General Douglas MacArthur described them as "the greatest fighting combat team ever deployed for battle.”
The Navajo Code Talkers took part in every assault the U.S. Marines conducted in the Pacific from 1942 to 1945. They served in all six Marine divisions, Marine Raider battalions and Marine parachute units. Navajo soldiers transmitted messages by telephone and radio in their native language — a code that the Japanese never broke.