Texas Mexican American Soldiers with the American Expeditionary Forces in World War I

Today’s post is an excerpt from Towards a History of Mexican Americans in World War I, Part Two: Soldiers of the 360th Infantry Regiment, 90th Division in France, 1918-1919by National Archives volunteers Victoria-María MacDonald and Emma Taylor, found on our sister blog, the Text Message. Part 1 of this two-part series was excerpted in “Over the Top” Experiences of Texan Mexicans in the WWI Trenches.

 

Published diaries offer raw and unedited first-person contemporary accounts of those trying war years – yet, only one diary of a Mexican American is known. Private José De La Luz Sáenz, a Mexican American teacher and activist from Alice, Texas, scrupulously recorded the sometimes mundane, and sometimes harrowing experiences of the 360th Infantry Regiment. Private “Luz” Sáenz was assigned to the Regimental Intelligence Office (RIO), Headquarters Company. His diary provides a missing and important voice to a more inclusive World War I history.

Historian Emilio Zamora and his colleague Ben Maya translated and edited an English-language version in 2014, The World War I Diary of José De La Luz Sáenz, bringing to the English speaking community a narrative that we can link through federal records at the National Archives.

 

Passage to Europe  

On June 6th, 1918, Private Sáenz departed Camp Travis, Texas, with 103 officers, 3649 soldiers, and other personnel of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) 360th Infantry Regiment, 90th Division. They arrived at Camp Mills, New York, the night before departure from New York City. Records from the Office of the Quartermaster General document soldiers’ passage aboard the transport ships that carried two million doughboys across the Atlantic Ocean.

At the top of the page, one can learn the port of departure, ship name, and date of departure. The ship with Private Sáenz sailed on June 14, 1918.

ship's passenger list
Passenger List for the Olympic departing New York City (NAID 6234477)

Private Saenz is listed on line 70 as SAENZ, JOSE L. At the top left hand corner of the document, we see that HQ Company of the 360th Infantry were berthed in 3rd class compartments. “Luz,” as Private Sáenz was called by his friends, described the discomfort of their sleeping quarters, in his June 13th, 1918 entry. “We slept like cattle or hogs during our first night..it is impossible to say how many people are crammed into hammocks doubled up and poorly fed” (p. 124).[1]

Military personnel obtained vital data from soldiers including name, rank, serial number, corps, organization, and contact information of a designated family member or friend. The geographic origins of their home towns confirms that the 360th Infantry, 90th Division had a large Texan presence.

 

Operations in France

The 360th Infantry Regiment participated in two major operations in the fall of 1918. France’s St. Mihiel Region was the site of protracted operations between September 12th until the Armistice of November 11th. Field maps, such as the “Bois Le Pretre Map,” illustrate the arena of operations near the Moselle River. The red, green, and blue colored pencil arrows, shading, and lines highlight battalion placements, daily objectives, and “jumping off lines.”

Map Bois Le Pretre, showing field of operation in St. Mihiel region, France
Map of Bois Le Pretre Showing Field Operations in the St. Mihiel Region (NAID 148017244)

On the 30th of October 1918, Colonel H.C. Price issued Secret Field Order #13 for the 360th Infantry Regiment to prepare for a surprise attack starting at “H” hour (3:30) on “D Day,”  (November 1, 1918). Some of the 360th’s heaviest casualties occurred during this intense fighting, paving the way for the eventual Armistice.

The night before the battle, Luz confided to his diary that he and his buddies Simón González and Edward Barrera hunkered down into a foxhole, knowing that “at sunrise we are to storm Hindenburg’s trenches…This will test the mettle of the descendants of Xicoténcatl and Cuauhtémoc”[2] (p.251). The achieved objective of the raid included breaking past the Hindenburg Line as part of the larger Meuse-Argonne Offensive.

Field Messages were also coded in case of enemy capture and pencil notations explain that the 360th Infantry Regiment became “Tide 7,” while the 177th Infantry Brigade was coded as “Illustrious 1.” The November 2nd message urgently requested help: “Machine gun fire is sweeping our first line from the general direction TUILIERES. Can you help us.”

U.S. Army Field Message from Tide 7, 360th Infantry to Illustrious 1, 177th Infantry Brigade (NAID 148017269)

Couriers such as Private Eulogio Gómez from Brackettville, Texas, bravely dodged bullets to deliver these messages. According to Private Saénz, Gómez could “not read or write Spanish or English, nor could he even write his name,” but he “nevertheless, carries out assignments that require some knowledge of geography…[and] is so adept he does not need a compass to find the hiding places of the officers of our regiment” (p.259).

The Report of Fighting Nov. 1st, 2nd, 3rd from C.O. 2nd Bn. to C.O. 360th Inf. 290.33.6 (NAID 148017338, below) notes the urgency that “a withering machine gun and artillery fire was sweeping the open ground in front of the intermediate objective.”

The tone of Commanding Officers’ memos are, by their nature, business-like and informative. In Major Etter’s report, he notes that “The attack began at 5:30 h and all elements moved out promptly. A number of casualties were suffered from shell fire before the Bn. reached its jumping off place.”

In contrast, sources such as personal diaries reveal the emotional side of war. Private Sáenz despaired in his November 2, 1918 entry. “Our 90th Division has suffered many losses while assuming the major responsibility in this sector. They calculate that we have registered a 40 percent loss of dead or wounded soldiers…What a slaughter! How many men have lost their lives just yesterday and today?” (p.263). The forty percent figure may not have been completely accurate, but the scores of casualty pages for the men of the 357th to 360th Infantry reveal the carnage of battle.

At least 15 Mexican American soldiers were identified in the casualty lists from these three infantries. Sergeant José A. García, Co. E, 360th Infantry, one of the few Mexican Americans holding a rank above a private, was listed as “killed in action.” Private Sáenz described his friend’s death in the poetic style he often employs, “this brave noncommissioned officer headed his company. While bending down to load his rifle, a steel bullet entered the front of his helmet and exited at the base of his head. A drop of blood appeared, the hero’s body stood bent over like a dove, lifeless forever.” (p.275). Sáenz’s portrait of death lends a more intimate understanding of the grisly side of war than the seemingly endless lists of casualties.

 

Sailing Home

Private Sáenz and the men of the 360th boarded the steamer U.S.S. Mongolia on May 27, 1919 from the port of St. Nazaire, France. Luz wrote that the slow boarding process and crowded conditions were less irksome than their previous departure. “We fell into formation around four and marched to the dock where our anchored ship was waiting to take us home. It felt like we were moving at a snail’s pace even though we were marching as fast as possible. We could see the wonderful name on the American transport, the Mongolia…we will always remember this” (p.444).

black and white photo of soldiers standing on a ship's dock
Original caption: On Board Mongolia, Forward Deck. Homeward bound troops taking their afternoon walk. St. Nazaire, Loire Inferieure, France, 20 Jan, 1919 (NAID 86698873)
Ship's dock filled with soldiers
Original caption: It’s the same Story as when we came over. “You Cannot Stand Here” St. Nazaire, Loire Inferieure, France, 20 Jan, 1919 (NAID 86698875)

While these photographs taken in January 1919 are of the U.S.S. Mongolia transporting soldiers home to the States from other regiments, not the 360th Infantry, they nevertheless capture the work of the U.S. Signal Corps.

One of that department’s purposes was to create images to be used as propaganda for the Army. For example, in the first photograph, the ship is clean and, although crowded, soldiers appear happy and healthy, with the exception of one soldier with his arm in a sling. Private Sáenz’s May 28, 1918 entry could have served as photo caption as he wrote contentedly, “I stayed on the upper deck after midday and contemplated the sea. I saw many of the same soldiers who had crossed the ocean with me several months ago.”

However, a still picture cannot tell what is absent. Luz continues, “A good many of the ones who are not returning with us are resting in peace in the fields of heroes” (p.445). The 75,000 men and some women who did not return home on the transport ships are absent.

 

Military Cemeteries

Long after an estimated 75,000 American doughboys were buried in Europe or back in the States, families of surviving veterans were entitled to headstones and burial rights in military cemeteries. Applications for these headstones provide additional information about Tejano veterans, including military rank and status at discharge, whether they were given honors or certificates, and the nature of these veterans’ lives after returning to Texas.

For example, Mrs. Ernestina B. Flores, widow of Private Gregorio Flores of Company “L,” 359th Infantry, 90th Division (which fought alongside the 360th in the Meuse-Argonne operations), filled out the required form for her husband’s granite marker less than two weeks after his death on March 16, 1959. The application not only confirms that Private Flores lived until 1959, but as noted in red handwriting on the back page, Flores rose in rank to Corporal before he was honorably discharged. He also received a Purple Heart, indicating that he was injured in the war. World War I soldiers were not decorated with Purple Hearts, but veterans could petition for the award retroactively in the 1930s.

Application for Headstone for Flores, noting purple heart, branch of service, etc
back of headstone application card. "highest grade held CPL" written in pencil
Application for Headstone or Marker of Gregorio J. Flores (NAID 596118)

The headstone application for veteran Private Clemente Espinoza of the 360th’s Company B after his death on April 17, 1936, is an example of how entrenched “Jaime Crow” [Jim Crow] was in pre-1960s Texas. The application notes that Clemente Espinoza is to be buried in the Asherton Mexican Cemetery [italics ours], segregated from whites. Despite his integrated service with men from numerous ethnicities and social classes in the muddy trenches and blood soaked fields of France, veteran Private Espinoza remained racially segregated in Texas, even in death.

 

Civil Rights

The full circle that Mexican Americans of the 360th Infantry Regiment took from Camp Travis, Texas, to the Operations in St. Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne, France, and back represent not just a geographic and unforgettable journey, but a change in their relationship to the United States as residents or citizens who were now veterans of a world war for democracy. On the journey home, Private José De La Luz Sáenz expressed high expectations in his diary that Mexican Americans’ war sacrifices would earn them greater respect and less discrimination, but he was highly disappointed.

Civil rights stemming from participation in wartime hardships and heroism would be fought for again and earned through the creation of Mexican American veterans grassroots organizations, such as the Order of the Sons of America that Sáenz helped found in 1921. The League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) was also created with the energy and determination of Sáenz and other notable World War I veterans in 1929 (such as attorney and civil rights activist Alonso S. Perales). Substantial progress in breaking down barriers of segregation and enjoying civil rights would occur later, after World War II.

 


 

This post is an excerpt from “Towards a History of Mexican Americans in World War I, Part Two: Soldiers of the 360th Infantry Regiment, 90th Division in France, 1918-1919,” part two of a two-part series written by National Archives volunteers Victoria-María MacDonald and Emma Taylor on our sister blog, the Text Message.

MacDonald and Taylor write:

The centennial anniversary of the Armistice of World War I on November 11, 1918, sparked numerous tributes and projects, including solemn events at memorials in Europe and the United States. The centennial also renewed interest in balancing the historical representation and contributions of diverse groups to the war with older, more traditional histories. In this two-part blog post, we focused on the largest of this population, Mexican Americans, as a means of illustrating the diverse types of federal records and primary sources that can be mined for a more robust understanding of Mexican Americans in the historical narrative of World War I.

Towards a History of Mexican Americans in World War I, Part I illuminated how diverse sources such as soldiers’ essays in the Records of the American Expeditionary Forces  Record Group 120, draft registration cards, and U.S. War Department circulars, could be triangulated to sketch a portrait of the social backgrounds of Mexican American soldiers in World War I. In Part 2, we focus on demonstrating how a range of federal records can shine light on the experiences of an estimated 5,000 Texas Mexican American soldiers who fought in Europe with the American Expeditionary Forces.

Read more about their research and path to unearthing and bringing forward these narratives in “Towards a History of Mexican American Participation in World War I, Part I” and “Towards a History of Mexican Americans in World War I, Part Two: Soldiers of the 360th Infantry Regiment, 90th Division in France, 1918-1919” on the Text Message blog.

 


 

[1] All in-text page numbers refer to the published diary. The World War I Diary of José de la Luz Sáenz. Edited and with an introduction by Emilio Zamora. Translated by Emilio Zamora with Ben Maya.  Texas A & M University Press. College Station. 2014.

[2] According to Zamora & Maya, “Xicoténcatl and Cuauhtémoc were heroic figures who fought against the Spanish occupation of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan in 1521.  Their execution made them martyrs in the indigenous fight against Spanish colonial rule.”  Footnote  I, p.493.

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