The Invisible Force: Latinos at War in Vietnam

Tom Sandoval, father of Pomona College professor Tomas Summers Sandoval, while on active duty during the Vietnam War (Courtesy Tom Sandoval)

This Memorial Day coincides with the 50th anniversary of the U.S. military’s first major strike against the North Vietnamese. Nearly 60,000 American troops would die in the Vietnam War.

Many of the troops were Latino. But to this day no one knows exactly how many.

Freddy Romero is among those who came back. But when he marched off to war nearly 50 years ago, his sense of geography wasn’t the best.

“I didn’t know where Vietnam was. I just thought; I’m going to China,” laughs Romero.

He was like a lot of kids from East L.A. who came of age during the Vietnam War. His family didn’t have much money. He flunked out of college. So, at the tender age of 17, he signed up with the Marines.

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“I was just a little boy,” says Romero. “I was very sheltered even though I grew up in East L.A., going into a situation I knew nothing about. But when I got there I just fell right in.”

Romero shared this story with students from Pomona College for an oral history project led by Tomas Summers Sandoval, a professor of history and Chicano studies.

The Pomona College professor is also the son of a Vietnam War veteran.

“One of the earliest memories I have is of this green photo album of all my dad’s pictures from Vietnam,” recalls Summers Sandoval, sitting in his university office on a recent weekday.

“I remember being a small kid before you even understand what war is looking at pictures of my 19-year-old father in Vietnam.”

Summers Sandoval began asking questions about his father’s war experience and that of other relatives who also served.

Looking back, says Sandoval, it seemed like everyone in his community had a connection to the Vietnam War.

Yet the sacrifices of Latino Vietnam War veterans have never been fully measured.

“During the war, the U.S. military didn’t keep separate data on Latinos,” explains Summers Sandoval. “Latinos were not considered their own racial ethnic category; they were just folded into the white population.”

At the height of the war, around 10 percent of U.S. residents were Latino. But a study from Cal State Los Angeles found that Latinos made up about 20 percent off all U.S. troops killed in Vietnam.

Tom Sandoval, father of Pomona College professor Tomas Summers Sandoval, while on active duty during the Vietnam War
Tom Sandoval, father of Pomona College professor Tomas Summers Sandoval, while on active duty during the Vietnam War (courtesy of Tom Sandoval)

But that research covered only the first few years of the conflict. Summers Sandoval is going further, scrutinizing census data and causality reports to finally learn the true number of those lost.

Just as important is capturing the real-life stories of veterans like Freddy Romero -- and in the process painting a fuller picture of Latino enclaves across California before and after the war.

“It’s a way of understanding the opportunities or lack of opportunities that existed,” says Sandoval. “It also tells us a lot about how the Vietnam War was reaching into a lot of poor barrios and in working-class communities all throughout California and in a disproportionate way.”

A lot of Latinos didn’t qualify for deferments because they were high school dropouts or were not enrolled in college.

In one of over a hundred interviews recorded by Summers Sandoval and student researchers, veteran David Lopez remembers what a high school counselor told him when he turned 17.

“He called me into his office and he said to me, 'You are so damn dumb you’ll never make it college,' ” remembered Lopez. “And that pretty much set the tone for what I was gonna do next.”

In a recording of this interview, Lopez explains how he went into a Marine recruiting office and told the recruiter he wanted to sign up right away. He wanted an infantry position and he wanted to ship out ASAP.

Summers Sandoval asks him why he chose the Marine Corps.

“You know, one thing about the Latino cultures, about Latinos in general, we’re warriors from the get-go,” said Lopez. “We’ve been fighting for our rights, for this country, forever. And I felt the Marines was the best way to go because the Marine Corps trains warriors to be better warriors.”

While thousands of young Latinos were swept into the military, others were fighting against the war.

This year also marks the 45th anniversary of the Chicano Moratorium, when thousands of Latinos flooded into the streets of East L.A. in August 1970.

One veteran told Summers Sandoval that he returned from Vietnam just in time for the protest -- and the violent clash with police that shattered it.

“He saw a police officer start to hit an older woman with a baton and he went up to that officer and knocked him out,” says Summers Sandoval. “To him it was like, literally, war come home.”

In another recording from the oral history project, Victor Chavez said he never questioned going to war in Vietnam, until he got home.

“You know I sat there for a year really wondering what the hell did I do, what did we do,” says Chavez.

But Chavez says the military also gave him direction.

He got married and raised a family. He enrolled in college and eventually become a high school principal in the El Monte Union High School District.

“I think that’s a misperception about Vietnam veterans that somehow this war wrecked all our lives,” says Chavez. “I have very strong feelings about Vietnam and it certainly impacted my life, but it didn’t wreck my life. I think it motivated my life.”

Summers Sandoval says Latino veterans actually tended to do better economically than Latinos who didn’t serve.

“Higher income, more likely to have a college education, to be a homeowner, all these kinds of things we use to measure economic success,” says Summers Sandoval.

After Sunday Mass at Holy Name of Mary Church in the city of San Dimas, Joe Martinez shows off an enormous display of framed pictures. They’re portraits of Vietnam and World War II veterans, lined up alongside active-duty Marines and soldiers.

“This particular shelf here is the ones who are currently serving from our parish,” explains Martinez.

Vietnam War veteran Joe Martinez heads the Stars and Stripes Ministry at Holy Name of Mary Catholic Church in San Dimas, CA.
Vietnam War veteran Joe Martinez heads the Stars and Stripes Ministry at Holy Name of Mary Catholic Church in San Dimas, CA. (Steven Cuevas /KQED)

There’s an old sepia-colored picture of Martinez’s father from World War II. A more recent portrait of Joe Martinez is there too, in his Marine dress blues.

Martinez enlisted in the Marine Corp in the early '60s just before things heated up in Vietnam. He was among the first wave of troops to be deployed in the summer of 1965.

“And I volunteered to go flying as a gunner, and I flew 41 missions,” recalls Martinez.

After serving in Vietnam, Martinez spent about 25 years in the Marine reserves and launched a successful career in the insurance business. Now he helps run the parish’s Stars and Stripes Ministry, dedicated to veteran issues.

“There are a lot of people continuing to serve. They may not be wearing the uniform, but they’re serving our communities, serving our churches,” says Martinez. “Doesn’t matter whether you’re Hispanic or whoever you are, we’re all doing the same thing trying to help those around us. We’re serving.”

Heroism on the battlefield is widely celebrated in popular films and on national holidays.

But Summers Sandoval says his research also looks at the kind of quiet heroism that went on after these veterans returned home from Vietnam.

“To me they are all heroes,” says Summers Sandoval. "Just for the ability to live their lives after the war in a society that was very often not even willing to recognize them, to even acknowledge their experience.”

Summers Sandoval’s book chronicling the experiences of Latinos in the Vietnam War is due out next year.

Audio recordings of the veterans interviewed for the ongoing oral history project are being archived at the Library of Congress.

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