The Contributions of Hispanic Servicewomen

Written by: Judith Bellafaire, Ph.D., Curator
Women In Military Service For America Memorial Foundation, Inc.

When the military first began accepting women into its ranks in the early 20th century, only small numbers of Hispanic women joined the services. Traditional Hispanic cultural values discouraged women from traveling any distance from or working outside the home. These prohibitions began to change during World War II, when the nation needed the contributions of all of its citizens.

World War II
Carmen (Contreras) Bozak joined the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) in 1942. The Army was looking for bilingual Hispanic women to fill assignments in fields such as cryptology, communications and interpretation. Bozak volunteered to be part of the 149th WAAC Post Headquarters Company—the first to go overseas—and went to North Africa in January 1943. Serving overseas was dangerous for these women. If captured, WAACs, as “auxiliaries” serving with the Army rather than in it, did not have the same protections under international law as male soldiers. Tech 4 Bozak worked as an interpreter at Army Headquarters in Algiers, and dealt with nightly German air raids.

Sergeant Mary (Valfre) Castro, the first Hispanic woman from San Antonio, TX, to join the WAAC, signed up to help bring home the seven men in her family who were fighting in the Southwest Pacific. The Army sent her to radio school in St. Louis, MO, where she learned to transcribe encoded radio messages. After Castro completed radio school, the Army assigned her to Barksdale Air Force Base (AFB), LA. Instead of working in a position for which she had been trained, she became a drill sergeant for new Women’s Army Corps (WAC) recruits.

In 1944, the Army sent three WAC recruiters to the island of Puerto Rico to organize a unit of 200 WACs. The young women of the island responded enthusiastically, and over 1,500 applications were submitted. The women selected were trained at Ft. Oglethorpe, GA, and assigned, as a single unit, to the New York City Port of Embarkation. They worked in the military offices that planned the shipment of troops around the world. When the war ended, the women helped millions of soldiers to return home before they themselves returned to Puerto Rico in 1946. Private First Class Carmen M. Medina, born in San Sebatian, was a member of this WAC detachment. Private Medina worked as a clerk typist in an Army post office at the port. She is proud of her service and believes that it was the most important thing she has ever endeavored to do.

Hispanic women also served as nurses during World War II. Army nurse Carmen Salazar of Los Angeles, CA, was assigned to a hospital train unit at the Presidio in San Francisco. The unit transported wounded servicemen from Letterman General Hospital to military hospitals across the United States. Second Lieutenant Salazar’s patients included ex-prisoners of war who had survived the Bataan Death March.

When large numbers of Puerto Rican troops were inducted into the Army in 1944, the Army Nurse Corps decided to actively recruit Puerto Rican nurses so that Army hospitals would not have to deal with language barriers. Thirteen women submitted applications and were accepted into the Army Nurse Corps. They were Venia Hilda Roig, Rose Mary Glanville, Asuncion Bonilla-Velasco, Elba Cintron, Casilda Gonzalez, Olga Gregory, Eva Garcia, Marta Munoz-Otero, Margarita Vilaro, Medarda Rosario, Aurea Cotto, Julie Gonzalez, and Carmen Lozano. Eight of the nurses were assigned to the army post at San Juan, and four worked at the hospital at Camp Tortuguero, a training center near Vega Baja.

Carmen (Lozano) Dumler, one of the thirteen, knew that she wanted to be an Army nurse when she graduated from the Presbyterian Hospital School of Nursing in the spring of 1944. She was sworn in as a second lieutenant on August 21, 1944, and remembers it as the proudest day of her life. Her first assignment was at the 161st General Hospital in San Juan. The Army then sent her to Camp Tortuguero. The patients were happy to have a Spanish-speaking nurse to whom they could relate. Lieutenant Dumler assisted as an interpreter whenever necessary. Her next assignment was at the 359th Station Hospital at Ft. Read, Trinidad, British West Indies. While there, she nursed soldiers recovering from wounds they had received at Normandy. The soldiers appreciated being able to talk out their anxieties and nightmares with someone who shared their language.

Lieutenant Maria (Garcia) Roach served as a flight nurse with the Army Nurse Corps in the China-Burma-India Theater of Operations, and received an Air Medal and two Bronze Stars for her heroic actions. First Lieutenant Jovita (Soto) Mounsey joined the Army Nurse Corps in 1945, and was assigned to the William Beaumont Army Hospital in El Paso, TX, where she worked on the surgical ward and cared for orthopedic patients. After the war, Lieutenant Mounsey was sent to Europe, and served with US forces in Belgium, France and Occupation Germany.

A small number of Hispanic women served in the Naval Women’s Reserve, known as the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service), during World War II. Maria (Rodriguez) Denton, a native of Guanica, Puerto Rico, was one of these women. Lieutenant (jg) Denton worked in New York City. Maria (Ferrell) Menefee, born in Guadalajara, Mexico, joined the WAVES in 1944, and was sent to Bronson Field, FL, where she met her future husband, a naval aviator.

The Marine Corps Women’s Reserve also had the aid of Hispanic women during the war. Corporal Maria (Torres) Maes joined the Marines specifically to “Free A Man To Fight.” After completing boot camp at Camp LeJeune, NC, she was sent to Quartermaster School and assigned to the Marine Corps Base at Quantico, VA.

The 1950s and the Korean Conflict
At the end of World War II, many women left the service. When the Korean War began in June 1950, the services of women were needed once again and the Department of Defense instituted a nation-wide recruitment campaign aimed at encouraging more women to join the armed forces. The American people, however, were tired of war and recruitment campaigns faltered. The Korean situation did not appear to be a direct threat to the US and most women were more interested in raising families than in embarking upon careers, military or otherwise. Nevertheless, some patriotic women joined up.

First Lieutenant Clelia (Perdomo) Sanchez joined the Army Nurse Corps in 1949. While stationed at the 343rd General Hospital, Japan, she nursed soldiers and Marines who had been wounded on the Korean battlefields.

Julia (Benitez) Rodriguez-Aviles, the first Puerto Rican servicewomen to obtain the rank of captain, joined the Army Nurse Corps in 1950. She served as a nurse anesthetist in Occupation Germany; Washington, DC; Texas; and Puerto Rico.

Lieutenant Colonel Nilda Carrulas Cedero Fuertes was born in Toa Baja, Puerto Rico, and joined the Army Nurse Corps in 1953, serving on active duty until 1964. She then joined the Reserves and served until 1990. Her most memorable experience in the military was teaching the latest modern nursing techniques to Nicaraguan Army nurses while on temporary duty (TDY) in Nicaragua for six months.

Alicia (Gutierrez) Gillians joined the WAC in 1948. While serving as a recruiter in Los Angeles, CA, then Staff Sergeant Gutierrez rescued a young boy whose clothes had caught fire. Her actions earned her the Commendation Ribbon for Meritorious Service. In August 1955, she was named the All-Army Women’s Singles Tennis Champ. Master Sergeant Gillians retired from military service in 1980.

Rose Franco was one of the few Puerto Rican women to join the Marine Corps during the 1950s. Born in Ensenada, she joined at the age of 20 and became a supply administrative assistant at Camp Pendleton, CA. Franco returned to Puerto Rico at the end of her four-year enlistment, intending to work for an airline company, but missed being a Marine so much that she decided to re-enlist. She was sent to the First Marine Corps District in Garden City, Long Island, NY, and was later assigned to Parris Island, SC. In 1965, Franco was selected for a job at the Pentagon as the Administrative Assistant to the Secretary of the Navy. On his recommendation, she was appointed as a warrant officer, one of only 11 women warrant officers in the Marine Corps at that time. Franco went on to hold several notable positions throughout the country. She retired from the Marine Corps in 1977 as a Chief Warrant Officer 3.

The 1960s and Vietnam
During the 1960s, the number of women entering the military remained fairly small. Although the armed forces permitted relatively few women to serve in Vietnam, nurses, medical specialists, and civilians (such as those with the Army’s Special Services) were desperately needed. Maryagnes Trujillo-McDonnell joined the Army Nurse Corps in 1963. As a first lieutenant she served at the 85th Evacuation Hospital north of Qui Nhon, Vietnam, from 1965 to 1966.

Air Force flight nurse Lieutenant Colonel Lupita (Cantu) Perez-Guillermety served on active duty from 1962 to 1971 and then entered the active Reserve. While stationed at Clark Air Base in the Philippines, from 1968 to 1970, she flew aeromedical evacuation missions in South Vietnam, Thailand, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippine Islands, in a variety of aircraft and medical evacuation helicopters.

Major Aida Nancy Sanchez, Army Medical Specialist Corps, served at the 95th Evacuation Hospital near Da Nang, from December 1970 to December 1971. As the first physical therapist (PT) assigned to the hospital, she had to set up a clinic in a quonset hut that had previously served as the Post Exchange (PX). In the meantime, Sanchez treated as many as 70 patients a day, using a ward storage area as an office. During Tet, the Vietnamese lunar New Year, hospital personnel were issued “frag” (bulletproof) jackets and helmets. The protective gear was required to be kept close at all times in case of a reoccurrence of the 1968 Tet Offensive. When she left Vietnam she was assigned as the chief of the Physical Therapy Section, Ft. Gordon, GA. In 1976, Lieutenant Colonel Sanchez retired after serving 24 years.

Cathleen Cordova joined the Army Special Services after graduating from college, and volunteered for service in Vietnam. Her first assignment was to the Free World Service Club in Tay Ninh. She then became the club director assigned to DiAn and Vinh Long. Eventually, she served with 15 different units, performing duties such as managing Army service clubs and libraries, working in orphanages, participating in Medical Civilian Action Programs (MEDCAPs), and assisting with visiting dignitaries and USO shows.

The 1970s and the All-Volunteer Force
When the Department of Defense established the All Volunteer Force during the 1970s, more women of every race began entering every branch of the service. Navy Petty Officer Margarita Rodriguez enlisted in the Army in 1972, and served as a medical specialist until 1975. She nursed soldiers returning from Vietnam, and felt that she was making a significant contribution. Rodriguez then joined the Navy as a hospital corpsman. In 1977, while at Naval Facility (NAVFAC) Eleuthra in the Bahamas, she was named “Sailor of the Quarter.” She was honored as “Sailor of the Month” in 1981, while stationed at Oakland Naval Hospital, CA. Rodriguez completed her military career by serving in the Naval Reserve from 1982 to 1984.

Staff Sergeant Norma Alvarado of El Campo, TX, enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1973. She served for six years, three of which she spent as a drill instructor and depot inspector at the Women Recruit Training Command at Parris Island, SC.

In 1975, Ophelia (Rodriguez) De La Garza enlisted in the Air Force. She was the first female from her family to join the military. De La Garza became a contract specialist in procurement, and for years was one of the few women in the Air Force to hold this traditionally male job. She then became the only female member of the Honor Guard at Langley AFB, Hampton, VA. At first, her colleagues doubted her ability to handle the job, but she proved herself and held the position for two years. Staff Sergeant De La Garza served in the Air Force until 1986.

Sergeant Brunilda Cofresi-Toro joined the Army in 1979. She received her basic training at Ft. Dix, NJ, and then went to Ft. Lee, VA, for specialist training as a material supply specialist. The Army then sent her to the 535th Engineer Company at Grafenwohr, West Germany, for three years where she served as a clerk with The Army Maintenance Management System (TAMMS). Sergeant Cofresi-Toro then left active duty. As a Reservist, Cofresi-Toro was assigned to the 464th Transportation Company in Alexandria, VA, as a dispatch clerk. As of September 1977, there were about 3,640 Hispanic women in the military–260 officers and 3,380 enlisted women. They represented about three percent of all enlisted women and two percent of the female officers at a time when Hispanics comprised five percent of the US population. During the 1980s, the percentage of Hispanic female enlisted and officer personnel began to increase.

The 1980s and Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm
Many Hispanic servicewomen served overseas during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. Petty Officer Sandra (Villarreal) Hormiga served aboard the ship USS McKee. One day, while performing a General Quarters Drill, she realized that, “We were no longer ‘just doing drills’ we were practicing saving our own lives. From that moment on, I began to treat each drill as an actual chemical attack.”

In 1978, Sergeant Gianna (Fimbres) Nenna Church joined the Air Force and served for five years. After a four-year hiatus, she joined the Army in 1987. During the Gulf War, Church was sent to Saudi Arabia, as a petroleum supply specialist. She drove fuel trucks in convoys, traveling day and night to supply fuel to units scattered across the desert. Church recalled one mission during which she and several other soldiers got stuck in the sand and encountered enemy fire. On another occasion, they were lead into a tank fight. “Rounds were going in between the trucks,” remembered Church.

The 1990s and the end of the millennium
Overseas service often entails personal risk, even when it is not tied to an official military operation. Captain Wanda (Ortiz) Thayne, the only military women in a family with a proud tradition of military men, joined the Air Force in 1989. One of her assignments, as a social worker in the Biomedical Services Corps, sent her to Clark AFB in the Philippines. Upon her arrival, Thayne learned that, only three days before, the National People’s Army had killed three Americans. The base was in “THREAT CON Charlie” for most of her tour. Service personnel were forbidden from wearing their uniform off base, a curfew was put into effect, and off-base travel was strictly limited. Although her tour was stressful, Thayne received a great deal of satisfaction helping handicapped and learning disabled military family members. Another memorable experience in Thayne’s career was briefing departing troops in stress management during Operation Desert Storm.

Five years after the Gulf War, Hispanic women comprised approximately six percent of enlisted women in the military, and three percent of female officers. Today, Hispanic women are serving throughout the armed forces and breaking traditional barriers. Army Major Sonia Roca, born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, was proud to have been the first Hispanic female officer to attend the Command and General Staff College. Iris Rodriguez, a sergeant with the United States Army, was the Military District of Washington’s Soldier of the Year in 1996. During an assignment at the Pentagon, she was selected to work for the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services (DACOWITS).

A Family Affair
We often hear stories of sons following their fathers into the service or of brothers enlisting together to fight the enemy. As women establish their own military tradition, daughters now follow in their mother’s footsteps and sisters serve together. The experiences of one woman can inspire those around her to pursue a military career.

Diana (Ruiz) Werts joined the Women’s Army Corps (WAC), in 1955, “to see the world.” After her first assignment in Chicago, IL, she was sent overseas and stationed in Germany. During her tour, Corporal Werts was a member of the Women’s Army Volleyball Team. “I was fortunate to travel to other European countries, sampling their cultures. Truly an experience not to be forgotten,” she recalls. Werts was honorably discharged from the WAC in 1958.

Encouraged by the experiences of her sister Diana, Diamantina (Ruiz) Jannone enlisted in the Air Force in 1960 and served until 1963. During her career, she served as a flight traffic specialist with the Military Air Transport Service (MATS). She routed air traffic when President Kennedy deployed thousands of troops to West Berlin and assisted in the transportation of soldiers and cargo en route to Vietnam. Airman First Class Jannone also participated in Showtime McGuire, an entertainment group of personnel from McGuire Air Force Base, NJ, and performed at northern bases including Thule, Greenland.

Their sister, Geraldina (Ruiz) Zore, joined the Army in 1970 and attended Officer’s Candidate School at Ft. McClellan, AL. As a second lieutenant, she was a WAC Detachment Commander and the first female commander to whom a male soldier was assigned. She served as a recruiting operations officer and was the first female account officer with responsibility for two finance officers and a forward support team. As a captain, Zore was assigned to the Department of the Army Quality Assurance Team. She then served as an inspector general for a joint command, and was the first female finance officer to be selected and serve as battalion commander and account holder. Lieutenant Colonel Zore, who retired in 1994, believes that her success in traditional male jobs has paved the way for other women to follow.

Lillie Werts-Smith, following the example of her mother Diana and two aunts, also chose to serve her country in the armed forces. In 1977, she joined the Air National Guard. Werts-Smith served until 1988, at which time she became a nurse in the Army National Guard. Her unit was activated during Operation Desert Storm. In 1997, Werts-Smith retired as a major after serving 20 years.

The Women In Military Service For America Memorial Foundation, Inc. honors all women who have served or are serving in or with the US Armed Forces from the creation of this nation to the present day. The Women’s Memorial is asking descendents, family, friends, and all servicewomen (veterans, active duty, Guard and Reserve) to register women’s military experiences. Every woman’s story is important and without them our history will never be complete. Please call 800-4-SALUTE for more information.