Racism deprived Latino WWI hero Marcelino Serna of the Medal of Honor. He deserves it, advocates say.

| October 31, 2020

This came across my desk the other night as I was polishing off my Valor Friday post. NBC loves them some click-bait headlines. That’s how they titled an article on a truly impressive man. Since valor history is my thing, I looked into this past the article that the “journalist” at NBC put together.

Lance Corporal Marcelino Serna

Just at a glance, Mr. Serna gives off an impressive visage. At once you can see this Doughboy went some places and did some things during the Great War. His awards and decorations put him in the rarified air of Captain Rickenbacker or Sgt York (both often referred to as the most decorated American of World War I).

This photo is from some time well after the war, since he’s wearing a Purple Heart (created in 1932 and retroactive to the start of WWI). He’s also wearing two wound chevrons (lower right sleeve), but these reflect the same battlefield injuries (the wound chevrons could be traded in for a PH medal). In front of that he’s got a Distinguished Service Cross, the second highest award for combat bravery. Serna was the first Hispanic to receive the award.

Serna’s also wearing the WWI Victory Medal with three campaign clasps, which go with his three overseas service chevrons (lower left sleeve), indicating 18 months overseas service. He’s got two French Croix de Guerre Medals with bronze palms, indicating a citation for valor at the Army-level. From Italy he’s been awarded the War Merit Cross, which was awarded to other Americans such as General Tasker Bliss, Colonel Wild Bill Donovan, Brigadier General Douglas MacArthur, and Sergeant Alvin York.

Serna was awarded the French Military Medal. Awarded for valor in combat, only 230,000 were awarded when nearly four and a half million French soldiers were wounded or killed in action. He was also awarded the French Honour Medal of Foreign Affairs with swords (for acts of courage in favor of the French in time of war). It’s safe to say that Serna’s bravery were held in high regard among the French.

Who was Marcelino Serna?

Serna was a Mexican national who had snuck across the US border in search of better job prospects in 1916 at age 20. Making his way to Boulder, Colorado, he worked as a farm hard. About the same time the US entered the war in Europe, Serna was picked up by federal agents and facing deportation. Before that could happen, he enlisted with the Army.

After training he was assigned to the American Expeditionary Force’s B Company, 355th Infantry Regiment of the 89th Infantry Division, the “Rolling W” Division. The 89th had been formed up under famed Army Major General Leonard Wood (a Medal of Honor recipient, the first commander of the Rough Riders over Teddy Roosevelt, and a former Chief of Staff of the Army), but deployed to France with a different commander.

Once in France it was discovered Serna was not an American. Mexico being neutral, he was offered a discharge but elected to remain with his comrades.

What were his heroics?

Quite a lot, as you’d expect from his numerous decorations.

During the Meuse-Argonne offensive, Serna’s unit came upon a German machine gun nest that had already claimed 12 soldiers. Then-Private Serna crawled up on the gun’s left flank. He continued forward despite being hit in the helmet twice on his way. He got close enough to throw grenades into the machine gun nest. Eight Germans surrendered under his one-man assault, the rest had died from Serna’s grenades.

On 12 September, 1918 Serna spotted an enemy sniper. He shot the sniper with his Enfield rifle, then followed the wounded German into his trench. Once at the enemy fortification, Serna threw grenades into the trench. His single-handed charge resulted in killing 26 enemy and the 24 left standing surrendering to the private.

On 7 November, just days before the armistice, Serna was shot in both legs by a sniper while serving at the front.

While recuperating, General Pershing himself visited and pinned the Distinguished Service Cross onto Serna’s chest for his heroics of 12 September.

After the war he was mustered out in 1919 at Camp Bowie in Texas as that state’s most decorated man of the war. He would become a US citizen in 1924, married and settled in El Paso. He worked as a plumber and died in 1992 at the age of 95.

Racism?

There has been much research and discussion of racism in the awards and decorations process in years past. There are many examples of truly, unbelievably heroic men who were denied proper honors. We’ve discussed some of them in the past, such as First Lieutenant John Fox. Thankfully in reviews of these awards conducted in the 90’s and into the 21st Century, their sacrifices and bravery have been properly recognized. Such reviews are now, as of last year, being conducted on awards from pre-WWII.

The accusation of Serna’s supporters is that he was denied the Medal of Honor for his bravery due to racism. It’s certainly possible. Fighting units of the Army had only integrated Hispanics into the fighting force in WWI due to manpower issues.

Marcelino is said to have been told by an officer in his unit that a lowly buck private wouldn’t receive the Medal of Honor. They told him that his lack of English skills meant he would be unpromotable. At some point he was in fact promoted. As noted above, in that post-war photo he’s wearing the rank insignia of a lance corporal.

Supporters of Serna’s point to Private David Barkley, also of the 89th Division, as proof that a buck private was awarded the Medal of Honor. Indeed, Private Barkley received the medal. Playing Devil’s Advocate, Barkley received his award posthumously. That’s one reason for the award disparity. To Serna’s supporters it should also be noted that Barkley was also Hispanic (albeit only on his Mother’s side).

From the article linked at the top;

“It clearly appears Private Marcelino Serna did not receive the Medal of Honor due to him being a Mexican American and an immigrant,” Lawrence Romo, national commander of the American GI Forum, a civil rights organization and federally chartered veterans group, wrote to the Army.

Let’s see how clear their argument is.

The military’s official citation for the Distinguished Service Cross, the second highest battlefield honor, states that Serna singlehandedly charged and captured 24 German soldiers.

But other accounts give more thorough details of his heroism and cite more than one such successful solo mission.

They go on to relay the stories I’ve told you above.

Serna performed acts of bravery that were not fully documented in official citations by the military, said Andrés Tijerina, a Vietnam veteran and award-winning historian who has researched Serna.

Serna was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, two Croix de Guerre with Palm by France and the Croce al Merito di Guerra by the Italian government. His Distinguished Service Cross was presented by Gen. John J. Pershing, according to a 2016 opinion piece written by former U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas, and published in the El Paso Times.

Romo said the omission of the additional details on the number of enemy soldiers he killed and captured from Serna’s Distinguished Service Cross documents appears to be “almost like they watered down his citation so they wouldn’t have to give him the Medal of Honor.”

I’ve read a lot of award citations from the time. Serna’s is about par for the course in narrative substance. It’s lacking detail, but that is not at all unusual for the time.

The article goes on to note similarities to white Medal of Honor recipients like Alvin York (his contemporary) and the WWII Audie Murphy. Both men undoubtedly earned their accolades. There are comparisons to be made, but Serna’s case is ill-served by pointing to these two men. York single-handedly held back and mowed down a German attack, taking 132 enemy prisoners. Murphy single-handed held off a company of Germans attacking him for an hour and then, though wounded and out of ammo, led a successful counter-offensive. The race of York and Murphy is totally irrelevant to their receiving the Medal of Honor.

Tijerina said Serna’s story helps contradict generalizations about Mexican and other immigrants as harmful to the country and that “so many are rapists, murderers and criminals.”

In 2016, President Donald Trump announced his presidential bid by claiming Mexico was sending to the U.S. people that are bringing drugs and crime and are rapists.

That Serna was not a citizen when he carried out his heroics is all the more reason to recognize his bravery, Tijerina said.

“He did it because he believed in democracy. And he did it in the face of insults,” Tijerina said. “People should know about this man.”

Yes, there it is. More thoroughly debunked libel against President Trump. Which has zero to do with the topic at hand, but the “journalist” can’t help but put in contemporary political commentary on something that happened more than 100 years ago.

My take on it

Serna’s bravery is without question. I’m sure his documented cases of extreme heroics were not isolated instances. In reading so many of these award citations, I’ve seen awards like Serna’s. For whatever reason, unbeknownst to me or anyone left alive, he was not recommended for the highest honor.

Was that racism? Given that another Hispanic man from his division at the same time received the Medal of Honor leads me to say that’s not the case. It very likely was that the division didn’t think a private who lived should receive the medal. During the war there are several cases of privates receiving the medal, though it’s about half and half posthumous awards.

Serna’s citizenship status had zero bearing on his awards. There are countless cases of non-citizens being awarded high medals. There are hundreds of foreign-born recipients of the Medal of Honor. There are so many that they make up about 20% of the recipients.

I wouldn’t be against Serna’s DSC being upgraded. You ask me, his heroics taking out the machine gun nest are the stuff of legend. Then a few weeks later he chased a sniper he wounded, alone, back to his trench and then, still alone, assaulted the enemy there killing dozens and taking many more prisoner! It’s amazing they could find a boat to bring him home that could displace enough water to support those brass balls . Either would rate the Medal of Honor in my book, but I don’t think that his is such a glaring case of racism. It comes off far more as a case of privatism, that is to say that the officers that make, route, and approve such awards do not appreciate the valor of the poor foot soldier.

Category: Army, Historical, Valor, We Remember

Comments (28)

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  1. 5th/77th FA says:

    BZ to Pvt/LCpl Serna for taking the fight to the enemy. And did it with an Enfield v a Springfield. Guess racism played a part in the type of rifle they got too. Was only white Marines issued the Springfield? /s/

    This Marine is atypical of the type of immigrant that we would want…and used to get. They came here, truly looking for a better life and set off on a goal to become Americans. And yes, like you Mason, I would think that the level of awards given were decided on at a much lower level, by some individual, than they should have been. But then again, now-a-days, any perceived slight to anyone is because of RAAAAYYYYCCIIIISS. Until every BIPOC has been issued a medal and reparations from the melting down of each bronze statue of an Italian Ship Captain sailing a Spanish ship and any and all Confederates, there will never be true equal opportunity. /s/

    • OlafTheTanker says:

      To be fair, Serna wasn’t a Marine, he was Army.

      Prior to 1920-ish the Army also used Lance Corporal where it was then later changed to PFC

    • Fyrfighter says:

      KoB,

      Just for clarity, and the movie starring Gary Cooper aside, the actual Alvin York also used an Enfield P-17 rifle (along with the pistol designed by John Moses Browning) during his heroics.

      Many firearms historians agree that the Enfield was actually superior to the Springfield (and fielded in greater numbers by the American OEF), but due to the biases of the Army Ordinance Department against the “cock on close” design, was not designated as the primary rifle.
      I happen to be lucky enough to own one built in Eddystone PA at the Baldwin Locomotive Works, which was about 5 miles from where I grew up. It’s still a great rifle!

      • 5th/77th FA says:

        Word up Olaf, can only blame too much early and too little caffeine…and lack of proper proof reading prior to clicking on the post button.

        Little sarcasm there in the Enfield/Springfield comment Fyrfighter I made. Those two been battling it out for top spot ever since the .58 rifled muskets that participated against one another in that unpleasantness of the 1860s. And modern times has no monopoly on defense contractors smoothing their way to procurement contracts with higher ossifer palm greasing. My P-17 had to get sold at a very tidy profit back in the early 90s during an extremely stressful cash flow situation. Think ex-wife and making sure my Baby Girl had the things she needed.

        • Fyrfighter says:

          Copy KoB, I’ll plead low caffinne levels as well for not catching that..

          As to the Ex-Monster, I’ve got one of them too.. As they say, divorce is the F$@king ya get for the F$@king ya got… But in general, there seems to be a good reason that they become ex’s… I’m pretty sure mine will never die, cause heaven don’t want her, and the devil won’t want the competition…

          • The Other Whitey says:

            Love my US Enfield! And I count myself lucky to not have any ex-wives. I’ve told Mrs. Whitey many times to please just shoot me if she ever decides she no longer wishes to stay married. It’s way easier that way on everybody, including me.

      • USMC STEVE says:

        It was not only that it cocked on closing. It was over a pound heavier than an “03, significantly longer, so not as well balanced, but with that 26 inch barrel, if you could hold it steady, it was very accurate at range. I still favor the 1903 if I have to split wigs.

    • Ret_25X says:

      Yup…no doubt a tough SOB.

      I’m betting he would never have looted his own city and cried about how poorly he has been treated.

  2. 2banana says:

    Private…where is your issued weapon that you signed for???.

    “On 12 September, 1918 Serna spotted an enemy snipe. He shot the sniper with his Enfield rifle…”

    • George V says:

      Not only a first-class warrior but Lance Corporal Cerna is the only person I’ve heard of who actually bagged a snipe. I went on many snipe hunts as a Cub Scout and father of a Scout and never even saw one.

      Or maybe he had a grudge against the guys in the engine spaces on the transport?

      (Yes, I know it’s a typo but I could not resist.)

    • The Other Whitey says:

      Almost certainly an M1917 “US Enfield” in .30-06.

      The M1903 Springfield was adopted in 1903 to replace the various models of Krag-Jorgensen as well as the Lee Navy rifle in US service. It underwent two major revisions early on (giving it a proper bayonet and switching from the blunt-nosed .30-03 to the spitzer .30-06 in 1906) and went into mass production. It should come as no surprise that said production was “mass” in name only, with less than a million M1903s being funded between 1903 and 1917.

      When the US entered the Great War, there was nowhere near enough M1903s (or Krags, for that matter) to go around for several million men under arms in the American Expeditionary Force. Remington and Winchester has just finished a major contract manufacturing the Mauser-ish* Pattern-1914 Enfield for the British. A slight—and thus quick—alteration to their tooling would produce a P’14 chambered in .30-06 much more rapidly than retooling their factories to build the M1903. This was adopted under “Second Standard” status as the US Rifle, Caliber .30, M1917, and would be the most common weapon in American hands overseas by a wide margin.

      Being an emergency substitute weapon, M1917s were shipped straight to France to replace the Krags** that many Soldiers and Marines shipped out with, visible in numerous photos of Americans on their way to the Western Front. For every M1903 in service overseas in 1918, there were at least five M1917s. This also means that, while specific provenance may be hard to determine, nearly every M1917 produced was sent to the front and carried in combat. My M1917, in addition to being generally beat to hell (but still perfectly functional), has a straight-edge gouge in the handguard that looks suspiciously like it might have been used to parry something long and stabby.

      * The Brits wanted themselves a Mauser after the Boer War, but being British, would be damned if they were gonna just buy them off the Krauts like everyone else. They also took notice when the US government lost a patent infringement lawsuit brought by Mauser over the M1903. Hence the P’14 Enfield (and nearly-identical M1917 US Enfield) is a hybrid of Mauser and Enfield design features meant to avoid a similar lawsuit while still giving them a damn good rifle.

      ** Though many Krags went to France, it’s unlikely that many of them saw action there, as General Pershing insisted on every unit receiving modern rifles he would allow them to go into the line.

      • Mason says:

        “it might have been used to parry something long and stabby.”

        I’d tell that story too. Odds are it was probably damaged by a Doughboy swatting a rat. 😉

        • The Other Whitey says:

          That’s certainly a possibility. I only speculate because that one particular gouge is long and straight, especially compared to all the other dents and dings in the wood furniture. Considering that rifle came off Remington’s factory floor in February or March of 1918, there’s been plenty of time for all kinds of mundane things to have happened to it in the intervening 102 years.

  3. Poetrooper says:

    I have no problem with upgrading Serna’s DSC to an MoH.

    As a former longtime resident of South Texas, I can tell you that many there viewed the American G.I. Forum, founded by a Corpus Christi physician, as a militant, and yes, racist, Hispanic organization aligned with other civil rights organizations in the Chicano movement like La Raza.

    I have been long gone from Texas so I cannot speak to AGIF’s current cultural-political stance, but judging from the way politics has become more divisive in Texas as elsewhere, I seriously doubt its militancy has mellowed.

    I’m not being critical of the Serna situation but I do feel that folks reading this article need to know who the players are. AGIF is not the VFW or American Legion.

    • Ret_25X says:

      Correct, they do not care about his service or heroism at all except as a prop in their never ending grievance business.

      In fact, if he were alive today they would actively cancel him as a tool of the man.

      AGIF is a nasty organization and there is a special level of hell for all people who work with them or support them.

    • Poetrooper says:

      And before Lars or LC or anyone else attacks me for providing this information, let me advise you that one of the key players in the early Raza movement in Crystal City was a good friend, a San Antonio attorney, with whom Miz Poe and I broke bread on many occasions and merrily hoisted many a glass on even more.

  4. Ret_25X says:

    It only takes one dickhead in the CoC to deny or downgrade an award. The story makes it sound like he had at least one such wanker in his chain.

    What would be appropriate if the raysiz word is going to be thrown around like the dud hand grenade it is, is a study of all awards in that unit to see if there is a trend that forms.

    If I was a betting man and I had spent nearly 30 years in our Army, I’d wager that the problem here is an officer who believed all enlisted men were inferior to his exalted DNA and only signed off on awards when forced to by circumstance or peer pressure.

    Not that I have ever seen or heard a Commander do something like “a SP4 cannot receive an ARCOM”, or “NCOs do not receive MSMs as end of tour awards in my unit”.

    • SFC D says:

      I had a commander like that. Karma raised her head later when he got an ARCOM end of tour.

      • Ret_25X says:

        Our BDE Commander in Germany was such a wankstain that to get a SPC or SGT an ARCOM you had to put them in for an MSM.

        EVERY award was downgraded.

        We had squad leaders leaving with AAMs as end of tour awards after 3 years of cold war training and duty in Germany…the COL and his CSM, of course, left with an LOM.

        No surprise there.

        • Skyjumper says:

          Ret_25X, I also had a BN Commander along with his CSM that shuffled aside award orders. When they left, our PAC Sargent found a number of them in their desks that they never signed.

          The unit became much better under the new incoming leadership.

    • David says:

      Not to mention the mandatory enlisted down grade… whatever they are submitted for will be downgraded to the medal below. A submitted ARCOM automatically becomes an AAM etc.

    • Anonymous says:

      Not racism, only dickheadedness, at play. Sure racism happens, but dickneadedness is more common than and transcends racism.

      “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” –Hanlon’s razor

  5. Skippy says:

    I think a upgrade is due
    Talk about selfless service on roids

  6. Ex-PH2 says:

    “..the officers that make, route, and approve such awards do not appreciate the valor of the poor foot soldier.”

    I’d put that as the real reason for not giving this award to Serna. Not being there at the time, I’d guess it was “we already have one of those in that battle group, isn’t that enough” or something like that.

  7. SGT Ted says:

    When I was stationed at Ft Drum, I read a valor citation on the wall of the PMO of a white Private that did things in Vietnam that read like a MOH big brass balls citation. The award was for a Bronze Star w/V.

    Plenty of lower enlisted troops get a low level valor award when more rank would see them with a higher level award. Race doesn’t necessarily enter into it.

  8. Slow Joe says:

    Wow. It is amazing what Alvin York and Audie Murphy did to earn their MoH.

    And to think the only thing you need to do these days to earn one is to throw back a hand grenade and get your hand blown off.

    I remember when valor awards used to be about how many of your fellow soldiers you save while risking your life to do it. Now it seems it counts even if you are only defending yourself, and from behind cover.

    Times are a changing.

    • USMC STEVE says:

      Yeah, I thought that was a pretty cheeze dicked award myself. Particularly when compared with about any other Medal of Honor citation.

  9. 5JC says:

    A DSC is not exactly a small thing. Out of the 100M or so people that have served since 1918 only 14k have one. They are saying he is more worthy than all of them? IDK.