From Barrios to Battlefields

By Medina, Frank | Army, February 2018 | Go to article overview

From Barrios to Battlefields


Medina, Frank, Army


History often takes its time to uncover our nation's unsung and extraordinary military groups. It is only sometimes through the efforts of dedicated pioneers that these stories are excavated from the trenches of battlefield folklore. The story of the all-black Tuskegee Airmen has been featured in books and film. The all-Japanese U.S. Army 442nd Regiment has also seen its story showcased in books and film. However, while Latinos were awarded more Medals of Honor per capita during World War II than any other minority group, their stories have remained in the shadows.

Three trailblazing individuals seek to reverse this course and in- troduce our society, and even the world, to a little-known Army National Guard World War II company from El Paso, Texas-the men of Company E of the 141st Infantry Regiment, 36th Infantry Division. Authors Dave Gutiérrez, Samuel S. Ortega and Arnulfo Hernández Jr. changed the historical trajectory when a couple of years ago they authored books about the largely untold unit. In 2014, Gutiérrez's book, Patriots from the Barrio, was released. In 2015, Ortega and Hernández coauthored The Men of Company E: Toughest Chicano Soldiers of World War II. These seminal books chronicle the story of the men who served in the all-Mexican-American combat unit.

Gutiérrez, who first set out to write his relative Ramon Gutiérrez's biography, said, "When I learned that Ramon had served in an all-Mexican-American World War II unit, the focus of the story changed from telling one man's story to the entire unit's story." The authors dedicated years of historical research and used genealogy methods and/or personal-outreach interviews to connect with over 60 families of the men who served in the unit.

An original National Guard unit, Company E was federalized in November 1940 and moved to Camp Bowie in Brownwood, Texas. In January 1941, young Mexican-American recruits from the barrios of south Texas were assigned to Company E.

The unit remained an all-Mexican-American unit until it deployed to North Africa in April 1943. Gabriel Salazar, an original member of the company, would later say, "When you heard roll call, you would think we were a garrison in the Mexican Army from Juárez just across the border."

While in North Africa, the 36th Division was assigned to the Fifth Army under Gen. Mark Clark. On Sept. 9, 1943, the 36th spearheaded the Allied invasion of the Italian mainland at Salerno. It became the first American unit to fight Hitler's forces on the European continent.

Battlefield Heroism

Pfc. Ramon Gutiérrez from Del Rio, Texas, and his platoon had been pinned down by four German Mark IV tanks and fire from a machine gun nest. After witnessing members of his unit killed, Gutiérrez charged the machine gun nest firing his Browning Automatic Rifle until it was shot out ofhis hands. Although wounded, he continued to advance on the German machine gun position. He closed in and tossed a grenade into the machine gun nest. The blast killed three enemy soldiers. Gutiérrez then jumped into the nest and killed a fourth enemy soldier with his knife. For his actions at Salerno, Gutiérrez would be awarded the Silver Star. The Soviet Union, which had an observer at Salerno, would also present the Order of Patriotic War, 2nd Degree, to Gutiérrez.

Sgt. Rafael Q. Torres of El Paso led his squad at the Salerno beachhead. Torres was one of six Torres brothers serving in the armed forces during the war. …

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