As Americans honor veterans nationwide, a new series pays special tribute to a diverse group of WWII soldiers that included Mexican Americans, Native Americans and white Americans from Oklahoma, New Mexico, Colorado, Texas and other parts of the West.
“Lots of diverse Americans were fighting to defeat Nazism, and they were also fighting to protect and preserve their idea of America,” said the New York Times bestselling author Alex Kershaw, whose book “The Liberator” inspired the new Netflix series.
The four-part, live-action animated series tells the story of Col. Felix Sparks and the diverse soldiers he led in the 157th Infantry Regiment. The military unit endured 500 days of fierce combat from the war-torn beaches of Sicily to the gates of the oldest concentration camp in Nazi Germany.
Roughly 500,000 Latino soldiers served in the U.S. military during World War II. And the majority of those identified as Mexican Americans.
Ultimately, Latinos would earn 12 Medals of Honor during World War II, and Gen. Douglas MacArthur would also champion some of them in Arizona’s 158 Infantry Regiment as “the greatest fighting combat team ever deployed for battle.”
A Mexican American from Port Arthur, Texas, Lucian Adams was a staff sergeant in the 3rd Battalion, 30th Infantry Regiment during WWII. He was awarded the medal of honor for single-handedly destroying enemy machine gun nests in central France on a mission to re-establish supply lines for U.S. troops.
Pfc. David M. Gonzalez received the medal of honor posthumously. He helped dig out fellow soldiers while facing enemy machine gunfire. They had been buried in a bomb explosion. Born in Pacoima, California, he was only 21 when he was killed in action in the Philippines in 1945.
But their path to glory was often diminished by the racism they faced at home.
Growing up in Arizona, and later when he reported for duty in 1941 to Fort Sill in Oklahoma, Sparks witnessed how Mexican Americans and Native Americans were treated like second-class citizens.
Kershaw points out in his book that the legendary Apache leader, Geronimo, died as a prisoner in the same fort where Native Americans and Mexican Americans were training to fight in World War II. And nearby bars posted signs reading “No Mexicans” and “No Indians.”
A WWII vet remembers his best friend
“I saw all kinds of discrimination in our own country during basic training,” Guy Prestia, an Italian American veteran of the 157th Infantry Regiment, said in an interview. “In the South, those people were still fighting the Civil War.”
Prestia, 98, initially trained at Camp Wheeler in Georgia and Fort Pickett in Virginia, before joining Sparks’s regiment. Both military bases are named after Confederate generals.
Prestia said he had not been raised to discriminate. His best friend at the beginning of the war was a Mexican American soldier from Tucson, Arizona, named Jesús (which he pronounces “Hey-Zeus”) Valles.
Prestia remembers writing letters for Valles in English to get them past the military censors. Prestia pointed out that combat made everyone equal on the battlefield.
“I didn’t see much discrimination in my unit, because in the infantry, everybody has to take care of each other,” Prestia said. “If you see someone get wounded, you go and help out. You do what is needed because you have a lot of soldiers but very few medics.”
David Silbey, a Cornell professor who specializes in military history, says that when Americans look back at World War II, they often overlook the contributions of soldiers of color and other minority groups.
“What the stories of these Mexican American and Native American soldiers make clear is that World War II was not the victory of white America,” he said. “It was the victory of all the diverse groups of America.”
Silbey said World War II was a turning point for many Americans. Soldiers who fought abroad were not willing to be left behind at home. Some women who worked in different industries during the the war became determined to find careers outside the home.
In some cases, Silbey said, the war made people more self-aware that their actions not only had implications for themselves as individuals but as members of a larger community.
“While the American government did not treat many diverse groups well, these soldiers nonetheless had an idea of a community,” Silbey said, “a place that made them want to fight for it in America.”
Similarly, Kershaw compared the experiences of Mexican Americans, Native Americans, Black Americans and other groups that saw in the military different paths to empowerment — as well as basic lifelines for employment, education and other opportunities.
“They were very proud of their history and their ethnicity,” Kershaw said. “Many, like the Blacks, were fighting for what they called the ‘Double-V’ — victory over racism abroad, and victory over racism at home.”