Latinos contributed to the American war effort at every level. Through their labor in industry and agriculture and their service in the US Armed Forces, they helped a nation in conflict that had often treated them as second-class citizens. The remarkable life of Medal of Honor Recipient Manuel V. Mendoza is illustrative of this.
Born in Miami, Arizona, on June 15, 1922, Mendoza entered the US Army in November 1942 at the age of 20. He was stationed at Fort MacArthur, California, a key site for defending vital shipbuilding plants, aircraft factories, and the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.
Mendoza was assigned to Company B, 350th Infantry Regiment, 88th Infantry Division. Activated in July 1942 under the leadership of Major General John E. Sloan, the division deployed to North Africa in December 1943, training in French-controlled Morocco and Algeria before embarking for combat in Italy. There they would fight with General Mark Clark’s Fifth US Army.
Mendoza and the 88th set foot in Naples, Italy on February 6, 1944. By the end of the month, they were relieving the British 5th Infantry Division near Minturno. Mendoza and his comrades would see action in operations to take Monte Cassino. Then in May, Mendoza and the 88th would experience heavy combat in and around Santa Maria Infante. The unit earned the nickname “Blue Devil Division” from the Germans (the “blue” referred to the blue shoulder patches worn by the men) in these exchanges. Following fierce fighting on the outskirts of the great city, Mendoza could look back with pride that the 88th Infantry Division was given credit as the first American force to enter Rome on June 4, 1944.
Six weeks later, with the Blue Devils pushing north in pursuit of the Germans, Mendoza crossed the Arno River. After partaking of some much-needed rest, he and the 88th, now commanded by Major General Paul W. Kendall, joined in the assault on the Gothic Line, the series of German defensive positions in the Apennine Mountains, launched on September 21, 1944. On the 28th, Monte Battaglia fell into their hands.
The Germans did not easily concede this ground. They executed a furious attack against the 88th. For what he did meeting the brunt of this assault on October 4, 1944, then Staff Sergeant Manuel V. Mendoza garnered a special place in the history of Nazi Germany’s defeat.
Manuel V. Mendoza Medal of Honor Citation
Mendoza’s Medal of Honor citation reads:
“Staff Sergeant Manuel V. Mendoza distinguished himself by acts of gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty while serving as a Platoon Sergeant with Company B, 350th Infantry, 88th Infantry Division during combat operations against an armed enemy on Mt. Battaglia, Italy on October 4, 1944. That afternoon, the enemy launched a violent counterattack preceded by a heavy mortar barrage. Staff Sergeant Mendoza, already wounded in the arm and leg, grabbed a Thompson sub-machinegun and ran to the crest of the hill where he saw approximately 200 enemy troops charging up the slopes employing flame-throwers, machine pistols, rifles, and hand grenades. Staff Sergeant Mendoza immediately began to engage the enemy, firing five clips and killing ten enemy soldiers. After exhausting his ammunition, he picked up a carbine and emptied its magazine at the enemy. By this time, an enemy soldier with a flame-thrower had almost reached the crest, but was quickly eliminated as Staff Sergeant Mendoza drew his pistol and fired. Seeing that the enemy force continued to advance, Staff Sergeant Mendoza jumped into a machinegun emplacement that had just been abandoned and opened fire. Unable to engage the entire enemy force from his location, he picked up the machinegun and moved forward, firing from his hip and spraying a withering hail of bullets into the oncoming enemy, causing them to break into confusion. He then set the machinegun on the ground and continued to fire until the gun jammed. Without hesitating, Staff Sergeant Mendoza began throwing hand grenades at the enemy, causing them to flee. After the enemy had withdrawn, he advanced down the forward slope of the hill, retrieved numerous enemy weapons scattered about the area, captured a wounded enemy soldier, and returned to consolidate friendly positions with all available men. Staff Sergeant Mendoza’s gallant stand resulted in thirty German soldiers killed and the successful defense of the hill. Staff Sergeant Mendoza’s extraordinary heroism and selflessness above and beyond the call of duty are in keeping with the highest traditions of military service and reflect great credit upon himself, his unit and the United States Army.”
Beyond his actions in northern Italy, Mendoza lived to see and celebrate victory in Europe in May 1945. By the time the war ended, the 88th Infantry Division had seized the city of Verona at the foot of the Lessini Mountains and was advancing toward the Alpine city of Innsbruck, Austria. For his wartime service, Mendoza was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the Bronze Star Medal, the Army Good Conduct Medal, and the Purple Heart with one Bronze Oak Leaf Cluster, to name just four. Despite his “gallant stand” at Monte Battaglia, the nation’s highest honor, the Medal of Honor, was not bestowed on Mendoza during the succeeding decades.
After World War II
After World War II, Mendoza served again—in the Korean War. For his exploits, friends gave him the nickname the “Arizona Kid.” Following his military service, he worked as a foreman at a nuclear power plant. Mendoza died in December 2001 at the age of 79.
Mendoza was one of 24 minority servicemembers in 2014 who received the Medal of Honor in long overdue recognition of their extraordinary military service in World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. President Barack Obama awarded the Medal of Honor, posthumously, to Mendoza in the East Room of the White House on March 18, 2014. His widow, Alice Mendoza, received it from President Obama, who spoke of correcting the nation’s “mistakes” and of the necessity of confronting a “sometimes painful past” of discrimination and inequality in the US Armed Forces. The Mendozas’ daughter, Sylvia Nandin, also traveled to Washington, D.C., to attend the ceremony.