This Hispanic WWI soldier was first to earn Distinguished Service Cross

Published: 25 June 2023

By Ken Bridges
via the Amarillo Globe-News newspaper (TX) web site


The most decorated man in the U. S. Army: Marcelino Serna 1919

The generation that fought World War I is now gone, but their legacy of bravery continues to live on. One of those figures was Private Marcelino Serna of El Paso, one of the most highly decorated men of the war. As an immigrant, he fought with uncommon bravery to defend his new home.

Serna was born in April 1896 in a mining camp in Chihuahua, one of the Mexican states bordering Texas. His family was poor, but Serna wanted a better life for himself. In 1915, determined to find work, he left his family at the age of 19. He came to El Paso in search of the American Dream. Initially, he did not speak English but was able to find work on a railroad maintenance crew. From there, he found his way to Colorado where he worked as a farm hand.

Marcelino Serna

Marcelino Serna

In 1917, the United States entered World War I and initiated the first draft since the Civil War. Federal officials stopped Serna in Colorado and asked his draft status. In spite of his status as a Mexican citizen, Serna, like so many other immigrants, volunteered to fight for his new country. After three weeks of basic training at Camp Funston, Kansas, he was assigned to the 335th Infantry of the 89th Division and sent to France.

In France, his unit found itself in the middle of fierce battles, some of the worst faced by American units.  German assaults were relentless.  Casualties were high.  Serna and the men of his unit fought on.  On September 12, 1918, his unit was pinned down by intense machine gun fire.  Twelve troops were killed.  Serna volunteered to scout ahead to find a way to knock out the German positions.  He crept alone until he reached the machine gun, threw four grenades at them, killing six.  He captured eight others and returned to his unit.  Two weeks later, he followed a German sniper to the enemy trenches and laid down fire.  He killed 26 German soldiers and captured the remaining 24.

For his actions, he received the Distinguished Service Cross, the second-highest medal in the army.  He was personally decorated by Gen. John J. Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Forces.  Marshal Ferdinand Foch, commander of the French forces, awarded him the Croix de Guerre, France’s highest award.  The Italian army also honored him for his bravery.  He was the first Hispanic ever awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.  When army officials discovered that he was a citizen of Mexico, the army offered to send him back to Mexico as a hero.  Serna declined, preferring to stay with his fellow soldiers and help his adopted country fight on to final victory.

He received two Purple Hearts for injuries under fire. In November 1918, just days before the end of the war, he was shot in the legs by a German sniper. He returned home from the war as one of the most highly decorated Texans of World War I.

In May 1919, Serna was given an honorable discharge and left the army.  He married in 1922, a long marriage that produced six children.  He officially became a U. S. citizen in 1924.  He took a series of various jobs before settling in El Paso and working at a canning factory.  Not long afterward, he began working at El Paso’s Fort Bliss as a civilian worker in the quartermaster’s office.  Some time after the opening of the William Beaumont General Hospital at Fort Bliss, Serna took a job working at the facility.  He spent many years working as a plumber, still helping his fellow soldiers by keeping the hospital running, before his retirement in 1961.  He remained active in his church and the local Veterans of Foreign Wars.

Read the entire article on the Amarillo Globe-News newspaper (TX) web site.
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