In vintage photos, Marcelino Serna wears his World War I Army uniforms that are festooned with several of his battle medals.
But one medal is missing — the Medal of Honor — that should have been draped around his neck about a century ago, Latino advocates, legislators and historians said.
They’ve launched the latest effort to persuade the federal government to posthumously award Serna the medal, the nation’s highest honor for battlefield heroics, arguing it was denied because of racism and xenophobia.
“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.
Texas’ most decorated WWI soldier
Serna has been called the most decorated World War I soldier from Texas. He fought between April 6, 1917, and Nov. 11, 1918, despite being a Mexican immigrant and noncitizen.
There have been earlier petitions for him to be awarded the honor, but now the law mandates review of cases like his.
Last year, Congress ordered the Pentagon to review records of Latino, Black, Asian, Native American and Jewish World War I soldiers to determine if they were denied the Medal of Honor because of their race or religion and should be awarded the medal.
A similar review, ordered in 2002, was done for military personnel of later wars. In 2014, President Barack Obama awarded 24 veterans the medal, all but three posthumously. Many of those recipients were Latinos.
“There’s a lot of times in history when you can’t right a wrong, but this is an opportunity for us to right an obvious wrong,” said Romo, who was serving in the Obama administration when those medals were given.
Bravery omitted, medal denied
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.
The Texas Handbook Online describes his involvement in the Battle of Saint-Mihiel, France. Serna went out alone, voluntarily, after 12 members of his unit were killed and used grenades to blast a machine gun site, killing six German soldiers and capturing eight others.
Two weeks later, in the Meuse-Argonne offensive he followed a sniper on a solitary scouting mission, tossed grenades and fired into a trench from different positions, killing 26 enemy soldiers and taking 26 more as prisoners. He refused to allow American soldiers to execute them in contradiction of the rules of war, according to the Texas Handbook Online.
He was hit by sniper fire in both legs Nov. 7, 1918, four days before the armistice agreement that ended the fighting. He died in 1992 and is buried in the Fort Bliss National Cemetery in El Paso.
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.”
According to Hispanics in America’s Defense, a Department of Defense pamphlet published in 1989 when former Vice President Dick Cheney was the defense secretary, Serna was told by an officer he had to be of higher rank than a “buck” private, the lowest rank, to be awarded the Medal of Honor. Serna was told he was denied a promotion in rank that would qualify him because he could not read or write English well enough to sign reports.
Like York and Murphy, but not white
Romo and others like to compare the heroics of Serna with Sgt. Alvin York, another WWI soldier who was awarded the Medal of Honor.
York was a corporal when he led seven men against a machine gun nest in Chatel-Chehery after his unit took casualties and he assumed command, according to his Medal of Honor citation. York is credited with taking down several German soldiers with his pistol as they charged at him with their bayonets. The Germans surrendered. York and his men took several prisoners that grew to 132 as he marched them to his lines.
York, who was white, was immediately promoted to sergeant and awarded the Medal of Honor. He became the subject of several books and documentaries. He detailed his actions in a diary that was adapted into a 1941 movie starring Gary Cooper.
Audie Murphy, another Texan, is lauded for his WWII exploits. He also is celebrated in movies and books and museums and has schools and a veterans hospital named for him.
York and Murphy deserve their accolades and medals, but Serna is overdue for his, Roma, Tijerina and others said.
A U.S. Customs and Border Protection port of entry in Tornillo, Texas, was named for Serna in 2017 after congressional approval of a bill written by Hurd.
‘Served during a time of extreme prejudice’
“That Private Serna served during a time of extreme prejudice cannot and must not erase his acts of immense bravery and devotion to the United States,” Texas’ Mexican American Legislative Caucus said in a letter to the U.S. Army supporting the GI Forum petition for awarding Serna the Medal of Honor.
Texas Rep. Cesar Blanco, D-El Paso, a Navy veteran, said the caucus added its support because the 41-member caucus is the largest Hispanic legislative caucus in the country, so “I figured it would send a powerful statement.”
“Throughout the history of our country, Latinos have made great sacrifices in many ways, but this one is a very unique way where Latinos such as Pvt. Marcelino Serna did so much for our country,” Blanco said. “This demonstrates, especially now seeing race relations in such a volatile state, that correcting wrong injustices is important and this is a great effort to do that.”
A bill introduced in Congress in 1995 to award Serna the Medal of Honor died in committee, according to The Associated Press. There also have been calls for Serna to be awarded the Texas Legislative Medal of Honor, which has been awarded since 1997. Murphy is among its recipients, but not Serna.
Serna was born in 1896 in a mining camp outside of Chihuahua City, Mexico. He immigrated to El Paso, Texas, in 1915, worked on a railway and later worked as a seasonal farm laborer in Colorado, according to historical articles gathered by Romo to support his petition.
When the U.S. joined the war, it established a draft for young men and would round up men who failed to report. In 1917, Serna was rounded up in the fields with other laborers on the assumption that they were evading the draft, and he was sent to training and then overseas. He spoke little English, Tijerina said.
Serna was exempt from fighting because he was not an American citizen and was given the chance to not fight. He refused. He served with Company B, 355th Infantry, 89th Infantry Division.
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.”