Six months after arriving in Vietnam, Pedro L. Decos, a Puerto Rican soldier from Passaic, N.J., wrote to journalist Mario González asking readers to write to him.
“I have read many times in El Diario/La Prensa about soldiers who wrote to the newspaper asking to have their photos published and for people to write to them so they could have some consolation in this war that we are fighting against communism,” said the letter, published on May 31, 1968, which had a photo attached. “I would be deeply grateful and thankful to the readers who write to me.”
Barely four weeks later, he had received more than 140 letters. “So far, I have answered 50 letters and am very thankful to everyone who has been kind enough to send me messages of encouragement and hope,” a happy Decos said in another article published on June 26.
There were so many Latino New Yorkers in the U.S. Armed Forces in Vietnam that the newspaper circulated regularly among the soldiers. “One of my friends gets El Diario/La Prensa, and we are always fighting each other to find out what is happening over there,” wrote Francisco E. Vega in 1968.
El Diario even had unique subscription offers for families whose sons were at the frontlines. The offers were advertised “as a special service for the men who defend democracy.”
Between 1966 and 1969, Mario González published dozens of interviews with soldiers and their families. The “Write to them” section cultivated a very tight-knit relationship between the soldiers and the Latino community in New York, and in 1967 González turned it into a book, “Our Heroes in Vietnam.”
Soldiers and their families sent in pictures and poems, and shared their experiences with readers. “I made five new friends from Brooklyn and New York. I knew one of them from school,” said Luis Soto, a Puerto Rican, in a letter to his mom Ramona in May 1968.
“We get together at the camp and sing Latino songs, accompanied by water cans. We sound great. I will send you money so you can go to the ophthalmologist and get a good test. … Your son who loves you, Luis.”
The majority of the soldiers were Puerto Ricans who mentioned how similar Vietnam’s landscape was to that of their island. But there were also Mexican soldiers and a few Dominican oneslike poet José Esteban Rodríguez, who died in Vietnam in 1967 at the age of 25, after sending this foreboding poem to El Diario:
“I will leave some day…
My memories will remain
in your hills and valleys.
And the blood that I
spill today with indifference,
will give a cheerful color to your rice fields.”
El Diario also reported on funerals and tributes to the soldiers that were held in New York. In 1967, for example, two parks were dedicated to Puerto Rican soldiers who died in Vietnam: Carlos J. Lozada in the Bronx and José Ángel Vázquez in Brentwood, Long Island. In 1968, there were two Puerto Rican veterans associations in the city. In September of that year, the Dominican Veterans Association of the U.S. Armed Forces hosted a Fraternity Festival for Hispanic Veterans in New York, which paid homage to Mario González.
His articles did more than inspire readers to write to and encourage soldiers. At least two Puerto Rican women, Vidalina Ruiz from Brooklyn and Noelia Hernández from the Bronx, joined the Women in the Air Force and were sent to Vietnam after reading an article about the unit in these pages.
El Diario’s relationship to the Vietnam War went so far that two of its employees went to fight there: Hipólito Colón Jr., an accountant, and Daniel Mattei from the Advertising Department. One of them, Mattei, never returned. He died in an accident in October 1968, when he was 21.