When the young Chicanos who fought valiantly in World War II returned home, many did not return to the high schools they had left to go fight for their country. By then, they felt they were too old.
But they made sure their children finished school and exceled, says Arnulfo Hernández Jr., a co-author of "The Men of Company E: Toughest Chicano Soldiers of World War II."
The new book tells the largely untold story of the El Paso, Texas-based Company E, of the 141st U.S. Army Infantry Division, 2nd Batallion, 36th Division, whose highly decorated soldiers helped to liberate Rome from the Nazis in 1944. Company E was the only U.S. Army company comprised entirely of Chicanos during the war.
These soldiers were heroic on the battlefields abroad, Hernández said, but they may have left their most lasting imprint back in their homeland by forging a path for their children and for subsequent generations.
Company E members like Abner Carrasco, who died in 2014, had children who became lawyers and corporate executives. Because soldiers like Carrasco would no longer accept the status quo - the second-class citizenship Mexican Americans had endured for so long - they made it possible for future generations to become successful and to grab a piece of the American dream, Hernández told NBC News.
"These are the giants on whose shoulders we of the Boomer and subsequent generations stand, and we don't recognize that," Hernández said.
A Sacramento, Calif.-based attorney and a Navy veteran during the Vietnam era, Hernández spoke to NBC about his reasons for writing the book, primarily the fact that recent popular books and documentaries on the "Greatest Generation's" duty, honor and love of their country were about "us" but largely ignored Company E.
"It was a slap in our face," says Hernández, who thinks it's paramount to keep Mexican American history alive. Below is a condensed interview.
NBC News: What led you to write this book (with co-author Samuel S. Ortega)?
Hernández: It's a history that you do not hear or see in our history books. It's a history that's not in the textbooks for our kids to know about.
NBC News: I've heard you say you feel a sense of moral obligation to tell the story of these young men. What do you mean by that?
Hernández: I am a Mexican American. I know no other country except this one. I know they made it possible for me to finish high school, go to college and to become a member of the California State Bar. I feel an obligation now that I'm at the end of my career to be able to convey that we owe so much to these men.
NBC: Who were these young men of Company E?
Hernandez: Eighty-five members of that company were from Bowie High School (in El Paso), where I would later graduate from. They were from the southeast barrios, from the poorest parts of El Paso. They grew up during the Depression, and many of them dropped out of high school to help the family out financially.
They were just like young kids are today. Traviesos. (Mischievous) They were happy-go-lucky guys. They were unafraid of death in war. What made them special was that they were so patriotic and there were no acts of cowardice in this group. Their motto was "Los de la Tres, no se rajan." (We with Company E don't back down.)
In our research for the book, we came across the writings of a lieutenant with the 36th division, who said, "My Mexicans are not afraid of the devil. I saw one stand his ground with his automatic rifle until he was blown away by a tank."
NBC: What do you hope to accomplish with this book?
Hernandez: We hope that as the story unfolds that people begin to appreciate their story, and we hope we can inspire the younger folks, the new writers to look into their history. We hope we can be an at least an instrument where young folks not only can feel the pride in their heritage, but want to explore it.
NBC: How important is it to tell these stories about Mexican American history?
Hernandez: If we don't tell our story, no one else will … Chicano history is American history. Without the participation of Chicanos, American history is incomplete.
The message is important to convey: We have much to be proud of. The Mexican American answered the call of duty. They pushed aside the racism they were subjected to at home to go abroad and defeat the greatest racist the world has ever known. When they came back, they said, "We're not going to put up with this stuff anymore."