Latino War Vets Changed World at Home, Abroad

Second of a five-part series.

Alfred Aguirre earned a bronze star for bravery while fighting on the island of Okinawa.

Alfred Aguirre earned a bronze star for bravery while fighting on the island of Okinawa. He was a member of the Army Corps of Engineers, Aviation Engineers, 96th Army Division. Richard Gonzales, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Richard Gonzales, NPR

World War II Stories

World War II has been explored in countless classrooms, books and movies. So, it seems incredible that, decades later, stories from that war can still surprise us. As Ken Burns' documentary series The War debuts on PBS, NPR explores a handful of stories from World War II that haven't been widely told.

Joe Juarez was wounded in the battle for the liberation of Leyte in the Philippines.

Joe Juarez was wounded in the battle for the liberation of Leyte in the Philippines. He was one of three brothers who served during World War II. He lost a brother, Maurice, fighting in Europe. Richard Gonzales, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Richard Gonzales, NPR

After the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, as many as 500,000 Latinos — predominantly Mexican-Americans — answered President Roosevelt's call to war.

Their service — and their return home — not only changed their lives, it created the building blocks for ending discriminative policies against minorities in the United States after the war ended.

For many Mexican-Americans, serving in the war was the first time they had participated in mainstream America. Like African-Americans, most Latinos throughout the Southwest experienced regular discrimination and segregation. But unlike African-Americans, Latinos fought in integrated units.

Alfred Aguirre of Placencia, Calif., served with the Army Corps of Engineers, 96th Army Division. He earned a bronze star for bravery fighting in Okinawa. But when he returned home, he learned that the local schools were still segregated.

"We were all together. We lived together. We fight together. Everybody was there — Italians, Jews, whatever. We got along fine," Aguirre recalls. "And I said this was stupid to come home where I was born and be separated! And I said I'm not going to have my child go to school and be separated like that!"

Aguirre's son, Frederick, is now a Superior Court judge in Orange County, Calif. His father led Latino war veterans who rallied to challenge school segregation after the war. Fredrick Aguirre says the action Latino war veterans took led to the first federal court decision that declared that separate schools were inherently unequal.

"That busted up the Mexican-American schools here in Orange County. And it set the precedent seven years later for Brown vs. the Board of Education in 1954," Aguirre says.

Mario Garcia, a history professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara, says Aguirre's generation of Latino World War II veterans pressed for civil rights not as a broad national movement, but at the grass roots. Indeed, Alfred Aguirre founded a group called "Veterans and Citizens of Placencia" and he was eventually elected to the Placencia city council.

Like Aguirre, Joe Juarez says that serving in the war was life-altering for his family. The Orange County resident was seriously wounded fighting in the Philippines. His brother, Maurice, a tank commander, was killed in Germany. A third brother, Raymond, was stationed stateside as a military policeman guarding POWs.

Today, Joe Juarez doesn't like talking about the war. But he will say that when he returned, he realized he had changed in ways he never expected.

"Because of the war I became a fighter, I was a winner and because of that I became a better man," he says.

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