Latino Legends: Hispanic Recipients Of The Medal of Honor

By Tom Rodriguez

Following the attack by Japan on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and the declaration of war by Germany against the United States on December 11, 1941, young Hispanic men throughout the United States were among the first to volunteer to serve in the Armed Services.  Those young men, many who had been born in Mexico and other Latin American countries, demonstrated their loyalty and love for this country by enlisting for duty and going off to war in Europe and the Far East.  

Those young Hispanic boys, only a few months earlier had been working in menial jobs on farms, packing houses, and for the railroads of America.  Ironically, those young men had grown up being discriminated against because of the color of their skin and their Spanish surnames. Yet, they would soon be fighting for this nation’s freedom in far away places like North Africa, Belgium, France, Italy, the Philippines, Burma and Japan.  They were at D-Day, at Anzio, the Battle of the Bulge, Iwo Jima, and Suicide Hill, and they distinguished themselves with courage and valor on the battlefields, where many of them lost their lives in defense of this nation.  

Mexican Americans and other Hispanics fought so bravely that after the war the book, Among the Valiant was written by Raul Morin, to record the heroic deeds of Hispanics who had been awarded the Medal of Honor, the U. S. military’s highest award for valor.  At the time Morin wrote his book, there were 35 Hispanic Medal of Honor recipients.  In 2020, there are now 60 Hispanic Medal of Honor recipients.

In World War II, seventeen Mexican-Americans received the Medal of Honor, the highest military decoration that the United States can bestow for exceptional bravery. Proportionally, more Hispanics have been awarded Medals of Honor, more than any other group represented in the veteran population of the United States.  

Today, there are 60 Hispanic recipients of the Medal of Honor. These hometown heroes – some of who have had plaques and statues dedicated in their honor, and others who silently rest in their graves with modest tombstones – all braved insurmountable odds against determined enemies.  They conducted lone assaults on enemy bunkers, led harrowing rescue attempts, fought hand-to-hand combat engagements, and selflessly made themselves the intended target to save others.  The Medal of Honor is often awarded when death is imminent, and many receive the award posthumously.  

Of the men of Hispanic heritage who have been awarded the Medal of Honor, two were presented to members of the United States Navy, thirteen to members of the United States Marine Corps, and forty-six to members of the United States Army.  Forty-two Medals of Honor were presented posthumously.  

The first recipient of the Medal of Honor was Corporal Joseph H. DeCastro of the Union Army for his actions at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania on July 3, 1863.  The most recent recipient is Sergeant First Class Leroy Petry for his actions in Afghanistan.  

Fifteen recipients were born outside of the United States mainland, one each in Chile and Spain, five in Mexico and eight in Puerto Rico.  Three were awarded to Hispanics who fought in the American Civil War, one in the Boxer rebellion, one in World War I, seventeen in World War II, fifteen in the Korean War, twenty-two in the Vietnam War, and one in the War in Afghanistan.

Forty-six Medal of Honor medals were awarded to Hispanics serving in the Army, with 30 awarded posthumously and 15 in person.  Twelve Hispanic Marines were awarded the Medal of Honor, 11 posthumously and 2 in person.  Two Medals of Honor were awarded to Hispanics serving in the Navy, both given in person.   Following are seven (7)  selected stories of Hispanic Medal of Honor recipients: 

Staff Sergeant Roy P. Benavidez – U. S. Army – Vietnam War

Roy Benavidez was a part of the first wave in Vietnam where he worked as a military advisor assisting the Republic of Vietnam soldiers in training.  During a patrol, he stepped on a landmine and woke up in a Texas hospital with no memory of what had happened.  Following his recovery, Benavidez volunteered to return to Vietnam, but this time with an Army Special Forces detachment.  

On May 2, 1968, a distress call from a 12-man Special Forces patrol comprised of three Green Berets and nine Montagnard Tribesmen, alerted that over 1,000 North Vietnamese surrounded their position.  Benavidez ran to the helipad to see MEDEVAC helicopters shot to pieces trying to rescue them.  Armed with only a knife and medical bag, he boarded another helicopter to try to save his teammates.  When he reached their position, every soldier had been wounded.  He jumped off the skids of the helicopter and provided immediate first-aid.  The helicopter’s pilot had been shot, but Benavidez continued to drag his wounded teammates to the bird.  

Benavidez was shot through the back, and a blast from a hand grenade peppered him with shrapnel and knocked him out.  When he awoke, the helicopter was on fire.  An enemy soldier slashed him in the arm with a bayonet and hit him in the jaw with his rifle.  Benavidez killed the soldier with his knife.  Another helicopter came to rescue them but was also shot down.

In the six-hour firefight, Benavidez was shot seven times, had 28 fragmentation holes in his body, and rescued eight lives.  When he passed out from the pain and exhaustion, doctors thought he had died.  He awoke in a body bag and used his spit to alert them that he was still alive.  He retired as a master sergeant and died in 1998.

Private First Class Joseph C. Rodriguez – U. S. Army – Korean War

Six months after Joseph Rodriguez graduated from college he was sent to Korea to fight with the U. S. Army’s Company F, 2nd Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment, 7th Infantry Division.  On May 21, 1951.  Rodriguez led his squad into position to attack a hill near the village of Munye.

Other units had made three previous attempts, suffering numerous casualties, and all had failed to overtake the hill.  “I was very angry, the fact that they had all of our men pinned down.  And I felt something had to be done. I didn’t even think about it.  I just did it,” Rodriguez said.

What Rodriguez did was run up the hill, threw two hand grenades into two machine gun foxholes, then returned to his men to repeat his action again.  The second time, he eliminated three entrenched foxholes.  For these actions, he was awarded the Medal of Honor.  He spent the next 30 years with the Army Corps of Engineers, deploying during the Korean and Vietnam Wars, as well as to several Latin American countries, before retiring in 1980 as a colonel.

Private Demensio Rivera – U. S. Army – Korean War

Demensio Rivera was born in Cabo Rojo, Puerto Rico, and enlisted in the U.S. Army’s 3rd Infantry Division in 1950.  The next year, while serving near Changyong-ni, Korea, on May 22 to 23, 1950, Rivera distinguished himself in the face of the enemy.  At night, a dense fog provided cover to a raiding force, who emerged and assaulted Rivera’s unit with an overwhelming attack.  Rivera immediately engaged targets with his rifle until it jammed.  He dropped his weapon and retrieved his pistol and hand grenades.  The fighting got so close that Rivera engaged an enemy soldier in hand-to-hand combat.

He expended all of his ammunition and was determined to make his final stand.  Armed with a lone hand grenade, Rivera pulled the pin, and waited for the enemy to leap into his bunker.  When they emerged, he initiated the grenade, knowing it would be his final action.  When his teammates discovered the aftermath, they found a severely wounded Rivera and four dead enemy combatants surrounding him.  Rivera survived the war and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, which was upgraded to the Medal of Honor in 2002.

Corporal Rodolfo P. Hernandez – U. S. Army – Korean War

Rodolfo “Rudy” Hernandez served with the U. S. Army’s 187th Airborne Regimental Combat Team near Wonton-ni and single handedly conducted a bayonet charge.  The 20-year old paratrooper was severely wounded by a volley of enemy hand grenades.  His platoon lost communication with him and retreated for cover during the chaos, which included mortars, artillery, and explosions during the 2 am assault on May 31, 1951.  While rain filled his foxhole with mud, Hernandez continued to fire on the North Korean troops, despite having shrapnel in many body parts.  

Eventually, his rifle was rendered useless.  Although bloody and dizzy from his wounds, he fixed his bayonet, threw six hand grenades, and yelled, “Here I come!” as he charged the enemy.  Hernandez bayoneted six enemy soldiers to death, which allowed his platoon to regroup for the counterattack.  After the melee, he dropped to the ground, unconscious but alive.  He became only one of three paratroopers to receive the Medal of Honor.  Hernandez died in 2013 at age 82.

Sergeant Manuel V. Mendoza – U. S. Army – World War II

On October 4, 1944, on Mount Battaglia, Italy, Mendoza was serving as a platoon sergeant with Company B, 350th Infantry, 88th Infantry Division.  He braved a fierce German counterattack despite already being wounded in the leg and arm. Mendoza and his platoon kept their heads down as a barrage of mortar fire formed craters around them.  Knowing the enemy used mortars to advance, he grabbed his Thompson sub-machine gun and ran to a hill crest where he witnessed 200 Germans hustling up the slopes of his position carrying flamethrowers, machine guns, rifles and hand grenades.

He fired down on top of them with five magazines of ammo, killing ten soldiers.  He picked up a nearby carbine rifle and continued his lone defense.  A German soldier manning a flamethrower was almost to the top, but Mendoza dispatched him with his pistol. He jumped back into an abandoned machine gun nest and continued to fire, but the overwhelming force was nearing his position.  Mendoza picked up another machine gun, held it at his hip, and fired at the Germans until his weapon jammed.  He reached for the hand grenades in his belt and began pulling the pins to throw.  Once they exploded, he slid down the hill, captured a wounded soldier, and continued his fight until friendlies arrived to back him up. Mendoza single-handedly captured one enemy solider, and killed approximately 30 more.  Following the war he was promoted to master sergeant and served during the Korean War, where he was wounded.  Mendoza was honorably discharged in 1953.

Sergeant Jose M. Lopez – U. S. Army – World War II

Before he joined the military, Lopez was a star boxer.  His 52-3 record proved that “Kid Mendoza” could fight and he even once met superstar New York Yankees, Babe Ruth.  Lopez was wounded on D-Day plus one, but he refused medical attention.

Lopez added a Bronze Star and Purple Heart but continued to fight across France and Belgium.  On December 17. 1944, his weapons platoon was about to be overrun in the snowy forest near Krinkelt.  As German Tiger tanks and infantry soldiers neared his position, Lopez ran with a machine gun to a nearby foxhole and took aim.  He immediately killed 10 enemy foot soldiers before the tank fired on him.  After recovering from the concussive blast, he wiped out a flanking platoon of 25 soldiers.  Using guerilla tactics to run to cover, shoot effectively and precisely, and then move onto the next position, Lopez successfully killed more than 100 enemy soldiers during seven hours of nonstop combat.  

Silvestre Santana Herrera – U. S. Army – World War II

Silvestre Santana Herrera was born in Mexico before he immigrated with his parents to El Paso, Texas.  His parents died from influenza when he was 18 months old and he went to live with his uncle.  When he was drafted into the Army in 1944, he could have opted out because of his Mexican citizenship.  However, Herrera chose to serve his country.  He deployed to Europe with the Texas Division, Company E, 2nd Battalion, 142d Infantry Regiment, 36th Infantry Division.

While on patrol in Mertzwiller, France, Herrera’s unit was ambushed by a fortified machine gun emplacement.  His teammates scrambled for cover while Herrera sprinted alone to attack the enemy position.  He killed several Germans and captured eight more.  A second machine gun opened up on his platoon, suppressing their advancement.  Again, Herrera set his sights on destroying the machine gun emplacement which lay in a minefield.  Using a wooden two-by-four, he examined the soil in front of him as he slowly advanced.  The Germans zeroed in on his position, forcing him to hurry through the minefield or risk being shot.  As gunfire drew closer, he moved and stepped on a landmine, which detonated and blew him into the air.  He landed on a second landmine that severed his legs below the knee.

While catastrophically wounded, he rolled onto his stomach and suppressed the enemy position with his rifle.  A friendly squad flanked the gun while their attention was on Herrera and the nest was captured.  Despite the pain and blood loss, he was rushed to a hospital and made a full recovery.  Herrera is the only individual to receive both the Medal of Honor and the Premier Merito Militar, Mexico’s highest award for bravery.

Afterword

The majority of the men and women who served in World War II are now in their eighties and nineties, and are passing on at a rapid rate.  Those men and women, who came of age during the years of the Great Depression, accomplished great things.  They won World War II and in the process saved the world.  For that, they will be remembered as the greatest generation that this nation has produced. 

In addition to the men and women who served in World War II, still alive are many of the men and women who fought in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, and they too must never be forgotten.  Above them all, however, are the “bravest of the brave,” the Medal of Honor recipients.  These heroes must never be forgotten and their remarkable heroic deeds must not go unrecorded or unappreciated.   Toward that end, this article and newsletter are intended to memorialize the specific brave Hispanics who have been awarded the Medal of Honor, this nation’s highest award for valor.   To all the 60 Hispanics who have earned the right to be called Medal of Honor recipients, we salute you, we honor you, and we will not forget you!

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