Veterans Day is a time for forgotten Latinos to be recognized

November 11, 2007
By Tyche Hendricks, Chronicle Staff Writer

William Carrillo had just started ninth grade at San Francisco’s High School of Commerce in 1933 when he was forced to leave. “The principal decided I was Mexican. … He threw me out,” said Carrillo, now 88 and a decorated World War II veteran.

When the California-born Carrillo came home from the war an Army Air Corps captain in 1945, the same principal caught sight of him in uniform one day and began talking fondly of his former student to a group of San Francisco teachers.

Carrillo would have none of it. After risking his life for his country and enduring torture and 11 months of near-starvation in a Nazi prisoner of war camp, Carrillo felt he had earned the right to speak up for himself.”I said, ‘You threw me out of Commerce High School and now I’ve got these wings on, you’re kissing up to me.’ ”

Carrillo, a resident of Daly City, served as a bombardier in the 350th Squadron of the 100th Bomb Group of the Army Air Corps, the precursor of the U.S. Air Force. From a base in England, he flew dozens of missions over France and Germany, and was shot down over Berlin in May 1944.

Like millions of World War II veterans, he made it home battered but triumphant to resume his civilian life. Those soldiers, along with all veterans of U.S. military service, are honored today, Veterans Day.

But Carrillo’s story, and those of an estimated half million Latino veterans of World War II, has not always been given the country’s full attention.

Hispanic soldiers served with distinction, earning more Medals of Honor and other decorations in proportion to their numbers than any other ethnic group, according to Maggie Rivas-Rodríguez, director of the U.S. Latino & Latina WWII Oral History Project at the University of Texas.

Many Latino servicemen, including Carrillo, were treated with a new level of respect in the military, but upon returning home, they, like African American GIs, found that segregation and bigotry were still in place in the United States.

Their stories briefly came to public attention earlier this year when Latino leaders criticized documentary filmmaker Ken Burns for omitting Latino voices from his epic PBS documentary, “The War.” Burns insisted he should not be expected to provide a comprehensive version of history, but in response to the outcry he did add half an hour to his 14-hour miniseries, including two Latinos and one American Indian veteran. Critics called it tacked-on and inadequate, and said everyone’s view of history was skewed when one group was omitted.

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