Arizona’s Men and Women in Military Service to America in World War...

Arizona’s Men and Women in Military Service to America in World War II: A Preliminary View

Mexican American men and women proved their American loyalties and bravery in wartime. Photographs: Chicano Research Collection, Hayden Library
Mexican American men and women proved their American loyalties and bravery in wartime. Photographs: Chicano Research Collection, Hayden Library

World War II dominated every aspect of the Mexican American’s life in the 1940s. As the United States became threatened by a foreign enemies, Mexican Americans in Arizona responded to the call for service and duty to their country, the United States.

Corporal Ruben Limas of Phoenix distinguished himself by serving as editor of an underground newspaper and fashioning a unique American flag to attract planes during his 3 ½ years of Japanese internment. Attached to the 60th Coast Artillery, Limas was captured by the Japanese at Corregidor in December, 1941. He was a POW at the Toyama camp in the Nagoya, Japan district. It was in this camp that he conceived the idea of attracting the attention of American planes flying over the prison in the hope that aid could be brought to a dying comrade. He decided this could be accomplished by fashioning an American flag large enough to be seen from the air. And so came into existence the most unique representations of the Stars and Stripes ever created. Limas first dug out his prized bed sheet and than made a requisition to the American medical officer in charge for a bottle of mercurochrome. When an Arkansas boy donated a pair of blue trousers the problem of the field for the stars was solved. The flag was completed in time to be used to cover the casket of the boy whose life the flag was designed to save. On subsequent days, the emblem was used to attract the attention of planes. Corporal Limas won the Bronze Star, the Presidential Unit Citation with two Oak Leaf clusters, and the Philippine Defense Ribbon.

In January, 1944, the Distinguished Service Cross was awarded posthumously to Private First Class Gilberto C. Estrada of Nogales, for extraordinary heroism on July 11, 1943, in the Solomon Islands. The war department citation said Estrada, an infantryman, killed two enemy machine-gunners when they attacked his company on the Munda trail in New Georgia. And Corporal Anthony Santestebán of Winslow won the Purple Heart for wounds suffered in action against the Japanese on New Georgia Islands. The 20-year old Marine was a member of one of the artillery batteries which helped pound the enemy into submission on Munda and Kolombangara. The parents of Tech. Sgt. Richard Estrada Mora of Miami received a telegram from the war department stating their son’s tragic death. Sgt. Mora was killed in action on the Marshall Islands on February 3, 1944. Private First Class José S. Ramos of Globe was listed as KIA in the navy department casualty list in early February, 1944. And Lt. Manuel Treviño, Jr., of Superior had completed twenty aerial bombing missions in the South Pacific by February 13, 1944. Lt. Treviño, awarded the Air Medal with two Oak Leaf clusters, had seven Japanese aircraft to attest to his courage.

The casualty list of Tucson men KIA was heavy: PFC Paul J. Berumen was killed when two Flying Fortress bombers collided in action. Sgt. Alfonso M. Hernandez was KIA in Italy, April 24, 1944. Marine Pvt. Anibal J. Norzagary was KIA in the South Pacific; Corporal Raul P. Moraga was KIA on July 15, 1944 in Italy. Marine PFC. Merado D. Robles was KIA on the island of Saipan on June 24, 1944.

Those from the Salt River Valley also made their sacrifices: PFC Arnold Castro was recovering in a rehabilitation center in England early in 1945 from wounds received near Le Haye du Puits, France. For his heroism, he was awarded the Purple Heart. And for heroic achievement in action in northern Italy with the Fifth Army, Staff Sgt. Mauricio M. Aragón of Avondale received the Bronze Star. Corporal Charlie A. Lugo won the Purple Heart for heroism in battle in Saipan. Also a winner of the Purple Heart, Pvt. Manuel G. Leyvas saw fierce action as a paratrooper in the African, Sicilian, Italian, Normandy, and Belgium campaigns. And PFC Carman Peña was awarded the Bronze Star for heroic conduct on the field of battle. The award was made for action in Germany, where he saved the lives of three companions under heavy enemy fire. Let’s not forget Staff Sgt. Juan Ramirez, reported to have died of wounds April 14, 1944 in Italy, and was awarded the Bronze Star for heroism. At the outbreak of World War II, Valdemar Cordova joined the military at the age of 17, just two courses shy of his graduation from Phoenix Union High School. While in the service, he flew bombing missions until he was shot down over Germany. He was captured and spent 1 ½ years as a POW at the Stalag Luft I Berth in Germany. For his service, he was awarded the Purple Heart.

Twenty-two Arizona soldiers were killed in the European and Southwest Pacific battlefields in early 1945. Among those KIA in the European area were Staff Sgt. Fernando Belis, Tucson; PFC Ernesto Miguel, Yuma; PFC Hilario Padilla, Phoenix; PFC Ramón G. Ruiz, Clifton. Killed in the Southwest Pacific were: Staff Sgt. Robert Gonzales, Nogales; Tech. Sgt. Hilario M. Gutierrez, Phoenix; PFC Trinidad A. Gutierrez, St. Johns; and PFC Francis D. Zavala, Yuma.

So that men could be released for service overseas, many Mexican American women provided the supportive services needed to continue the war effort. For example, PFC Carmen Martinez of Phoenix served with the U.S. Marine Corps Women’s Reserve. She was on duty as a typist and filing clerk in the message center at the Marine barracks in Quantico, Virginia. And Privates Maria C. Espinosa and Anita H. Garcia also enlisted in the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve from Phoenix. Private Dolores Alice Ozuna of Globe served with the stenographic unit at an Army airfield. Rose F. Varela of Phoenix enlisted with the Waves. Mary Lou Mazón served in the Rapid City Army Air Base in South Dakota in 1942. Sgt. Josie Orñelas served with the WACs in 1943. Maria D. Armijo of McNary trained with the Army Corp at Fort Des Moines with a Wave unit. In 1945, Sgt. Vicenta R. Torres, stationed in Italy as a WAC, had the duty of directing mail from Italy to American fighting men stationed overseas. And in Phoenix, Pvt. Carmen C. Contreras became the 750th Arizona woman to join the Army. And Cpt. Matilde Yanez of Phoenix served as chief nurse in a combat zone hospital on the island of Luzon.

Born in Mexico to Valentίn Almanza and Felicitas Fierro Herrera and orphaned as a toddler, Silvestre Herrera was raised in El Paso, Texas by a loving uncle and aunt, Librado and Gertrudis Santana. As a young man, Herrera became a farm worker, and joined his family in the agricultural fields of Texas. Already married to Ramona Hidalgo Guerrera, with three children, and another child on the way, Herrera received his U.S. Army draft notice in 1944. His uncle reminded him that he was not a United States citizen and was not obligated to join the military. But Herrera felt it was his duty to fight and defend his adopted country, the United States. The Army sent him to Alabama for infantry training. On March 15, 1945, near Mertzwiller, France, his squad was pinned down by enemy German machine gun fire. Private First Class Herrera stood up and charged with the bayonet fixed on his M-1 rifle. He tipped over one machine gun and captured eight German soldiers. The squad advanced through a mine field toward another, better fortified machine-gun emplacement. Herrera stepped on an anti-personnel mine, and both his feet were blown off. He was evacuated to Bushnell General Hospital in Utah to receive medical care. On August 23, 1945, PFC Silvestre Herrera was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor in a special military ceremony by President Harry S. Truman. He also received his United States citizenship upon his return to his Mexicano community in Phoenix. Herrera was honored for his bravery with a proclamation by Governor Sidney P. Osborn designating August 25, 1945 as “Sylvestre Herrera Day”. It didn’t matter that Herrera’s first name was misspelled on the proclamation, however. What mattered is that he was recognized by the citizens of the State of Arizona for his selfless act of courage and sacrifices at a time when his country needed him the most.

The Governor and other important officials were at the Union Station in Phoenix to greet the train bringing Herrera back home. He was the guest of honor at a patriotic parade down Central Avenue that morning and he sat on top of the back of a brand new red convertible so the crowd could see him pass by along the route. The parade stopped in front of the Republic and Gazette Building on Central. A platform was draped with red, white and blue bunting. The people cheered for the governor. They clapped for the mayor and Governor Osborn shouted “On behalf of the people of Arizona, I’m proud and happy to welcome you home, Sergeant Herrera!” Anthropologist Beatrice Griffith reports in her seminal study of Mexican Americans, American Me, published by Houghton Mifflin in 1948, that “just a few days before, it had been necessary for the Governor to take action to have removed from business establishments signs which said ‘NO MEXICAN TRADE WANTED!”

Mexican American men and women proved their American loyalties and bravery in wartime. Their deaths, medals, citations, awards and unquestionable patriotism attest to their achievements and contributions to the nation’s efforts in World War II.

© 2007 – 2017, Dr. Christine Marin. All rights reserved.