Marcelino Serna, the first Mexican American soldier to receive the Distinguished Service Cross and one of the most decorated Texans of World War I, was born at the Hacienda Robinson mining camp outside Chihuahua City, Mexico, on April 26, 1896. About 1915 Serna immigrated to El Paso, Texas, where he found employment on a maintenance crew for the Atcheson, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway System, as well as the Union Pacific. In 1917, while working as a seasonal farm laborer in Colorado, Serna was detained by federal officials seeking to verify his draft status. Despite his Mexican citizenship, Serna volunteered to enlist in the United States Army. He received three weeks of training at Camp Funston, Kansas, before being deployed to Europe as a private with Company B, 355th Infantry, 89th Infantry Division. While in Europe, Serna, who spoke little English, was offered a discharge after officials discovered that he was not a U.S. citizen. However, he declined the offer.
During the war, Serna fought in the Lucey Sector, the Saint-Mihiel offensive, the Euvezin Sector, and the Meuse-Argonne offensive. On September 12, 1918, during the battle of Saint-Mihiel, Private Serna’s unit came under heavy machine gun fire. Following the deaths of twelve members of his unit, he volunteered to scout ahead. Serna advanced alone until he was close enough to the machine gun emplacement to toss four grenades inside. The blast killed six, and Serna captured the remaining eight German soldiers. Two weeks later, during the Meuse-Argonne offensive, Serna again volunteered to scout ahead—alone—after spotting a German sniper in the distance. He followed the sniper to a German trench. Armed with an Enfield rifle, pistol, and grenades, Serna laid down fire and tossed grenades while continually changing positions around the trench. The enemy came to believe that they were under attack by a much larger force and surrendered. Serna single-handedly killed twenty-six enemy soldiers and took another twenty-four German soldiers prisoner. When reinforcements arrived, Serna defended his prisoners from American soldiers, who wished to execute them on the spot, and argued that such executions went against the rules of war. On November 7, 1918, four days before the armistice agreement, Serna was hit by sniper fire in both legs and was sent to an army hospital in France.
For his service, Serna was awarded the second highest American combat medal, the Distinguished Service Cross, by the commander-in-chief of the American Expeditionary Forces, Gen. John J. Pershing. Serna also received two French Croix de Guerre with palms. The first was given to him personally by French Marshal Ferdinand Foch, supreme commander of the Allied forces in Europe. The second Croix de Guerre, along with a French Médaille Militaire and an Italian Croce al Merito di Guerra, was awarded in a ceremony at Fort Bliss attended by Governor William P. Hobby. In addition, Serna received, a French Commemorative Medal, a French St. Mihiel Medal, a French Verdun Medal, a Victory Medal with five stars, a Victory Medal with three campaign bars, and two Purple Hearts, making him one of the most highly decorated soldiers in Texas history.
Serna was discharged from the U. S. Army in May 1919 and returned to El Paso, Texas, where he worked briefly at the Payton Packing Company before landing a job in the quartermaster’s department at Fort Bliss. In 1922 he married Simona Jiménez, and in 1924 he became a U.S. citizen. Afterwards, he worked as a city truck driver, a civil service employee at Fort Bliss, and a plumber at William Beaumont Army Medical Center, where he retired in 1961. Serna and his wife had six children: Gilberto, Gloria, Carolina, Julliette, Ester, and Margarita; only Gloria and Margarita survived to adulthood. Serna was a charter member of his local Veterans of Foreign Wars Post No. 2753, and he remained active in the organization for many years, often appearing in Veteran’s Day parades. He was also a devout parishioner of Saint Ignatius Catholic Church. Serna died in El Paso, Texas, on February 29, 1992, of age-related causes and was buried at Fort Bliss National Cemetery with full military honors.
Due to Serna’s impressive combat record, many have questioned why he never received the Congressional Medal of Honor. Serna himself later recalled that his superior officers refused to recommend him for the honor because he was too low in rank and because his English skills were not proficient enough to warrant a promotion. Others have claimed that the oversight was due to racial prejudice. In the decades since Serna’s military service, numerous Texans have pushed for further recognition. Perhaps the first was historian, civic leader, and fellow WWI veteran Cleofas Calleros, who discovered in the 1930s that Serna was never actually given a Purple Heart or an Allied Victory Medal and petitioned the government to have them properly awarded. In the late 1980s Serna’s local VFW post began to contact various representatives to see if they might petition the United States Congress on his behalf. Since 1993 several Texas politicians, including U.S. Congressman Ronald D. Coleman, State Representative Juan Manuel Escobar, and State Representative Joe Pickett, have asked Congress to posthumously award Serna with the Congressional Medal of Honor. Similar bills have been filed at the state level to award Serna the Texas Legislative Medal of Honor. As of 2016 these attempts have been unsuccessful.
Leonard, Barry, ed., Hispanics in America’s Defense (DIANE Publishing Company, 1989). El Paso Times, May 4, 2009; September 13, 2009. Elena Gomez, “Marcelino Serna Became World War I Hero,” Borderlands 23 (2004). La Prensa, November 11, 2009. Alexander Mendoza and Charles David Grear, eds. Texans and War: New Interpretations of the State’s Military History (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2012). Jose A. Ramirez, To the Line of Fire!: Mexican Texans and World War I (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2009).
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