Monday, May 26, 2014

Memorial Day’s unknown soldiers

Today is Memorial Day, where old men walk around wearing their ball caps with various indications of their veteran status. Sometimes it seems as if every man between a certain age served in combat somewhere, and a few have nothing better to do but display themselves like martial peacocks, because it is the only status of significance that they have. Quite often I get the feeling from these folks that they are saying to me that they are “real Americans” who fought for the things that America “’stands for”—although I get impression that they’ve forgotten what that is—and that I and people “like me” are just interlopers taking advantage of the “freedom” that Real Americans spilled their blood for.

The fact that I was born and raised in this country and served seven years in the Regular Army obviously doesn’t mean anything to such people, because they are not basing their opinion on what they know, but on their racial prejudices and assumptions. For the current generation, this is all reinforced by the fact that the American news and entertainment media ignored—and still ignores—the fact that 13 percent of the soldiers, airmen and sailors who served in World War II were black and Latino (although it was true that the majority of black troops served in support units). 

According to the Warfare and Armed Conflicts – A Statistical Reference to Casualty and Other Figures, 1500–2000, 708 black soldiers died in combat in WWII, although it isn’t clear where these statistics were derived. Counting the number of Latino soldiers killed is far more “problematic,” even in today’s conflicts. Save for Puerto Rican units, Latino soldiers who served in WWII were almost always identified as “white,” so that it takes a great deal of painstaking research to discover how many actually served and died. The high estimate is that 9,000 Latino soldiers died during WWII. 

More recently, during Operation Iraqi Freedom through October 2012, 439 black soldiers were killed (about 10 percent of the total), and 466 Latino soldiers died. Most of these identified themselves as “white,” which unfortunately is only an self-deluding indication of what they wish to believe, not the reality on the ground—there or here. During WWII, many who served in Anglo units reported discriminatory treatment by their white “brothers,” and perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that some of these “white” soldiers requested transfers to black units. 

Two New Mexico-based National Guard units of mostly Spanish-speaking soldiers, the 200th and 515th Battalions, were also among those abandoned by Douglas MacArthur on the Bataan Peninsula in March, 1942 a month before the actual surrender. MacArthur “expected” the troops under siege by the Japanese to hold-out despite his failure to keep them supplied with food and ammunition, which only hastened the inevitable. As many as 80,000 starving and exhausted men were ordered to stand down, to face additional privations on the Bataan death march, including being burned alive in pits.

Yet on Memorial Day, on millions of television sets we are inundated with a War Marathon, film after film about white soldiers doing heroic things during the Great War. Not a single black or Latino face to be seen. Thus we are confronted with the “fact” that only white soldiers actually fought and died during WWII. Such was the belief in this "fact"  in Jim Crow America, no black soldier was seen fit to be awarded the Medal of Honor during World War II, although seven would receive the award “belatedly” decades later. 17 Latinos were awarded the Medal of Honor during World War II, and 140 the Distinguished Service Cross.  

Yet like black soldiers, Latino veterans only returned to a world of discrimination and prejudice. Sometimes you wonder if anything has changed; I think not.

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