Mexican-born Silvestre S. Herrera (1916-2007) wasn’t even a U.S. citizen when he signed up to fight for the United States in World War II. Herrera’s unit was marching along a road near the town of Mertzwiller, France, very near the German border. There were woods on both sides of the road, and suddenly the 36th Infantry was hit by machine gun fire from two directions. Many of the men dove for cover, but Herrera spotted the area where the firing was coming from and he ran toward it, firing his M-1 Garand machine gun as he ran. When he got closer, he tossed two grenades into the machine gun nest, and the explosions knocked the Germans off their feet. With only a rifle and his own bravery, Herrera continued the attack. By the time he emerged, eight of the Germans had thrown down their weapons and surrendered to him.
Herrera marched them back to his squad where others took responsibility for the captives, and Herrera, who later said he couldn’t hear the commanding officer anyway, took matters into his own hands and ran for the second place from which machine guns were being fired.
That area, unfortunately, was laced with landmines. Allied soldiers had been peppering the area with rocks, attempting to set off the landmines and thereby, make it safer to cross. Unfortunately, there were mines they had not yet triggered, and Herrera still hit one as he ran. The explosion brought him down, severing both his feet at the ankles. Herrera was still conscious so he kept firing, trying to draw attention to himself while the rest of the platoon flanked the machine gun emplacement and captured the enemy.
Following that battle, Herrera was taken to a field hospital to begin the long process of recovery.
Silvestre Herrera’s bravery made him a likely candidate for a Congressional Medal of Honor, but then the military realized that he wasn’t a U.S. citizen. This gave them pause, but the decision was made to award him the Medal of Honor anyway. People of rank made certain he would be given citizenship shortly after. By August 1945, Silvestre Herrera was well enough to attend the White House ceremony in a wheelchair. President Truman presented him his medal, the highest military honor given in the U.S.
In part his citation read: “The magnificent courage, extraordinary heroism, and willing self-sacrifice displayed by Pvt. Herrera resulted in the capture of 2 enemy strong points and the taking of 8 prisoners.”
He also became the first Arizonan in World War II to receive the nation’s highest medal.
Shortly thereafter he was also awarded the Premier Merito Militar, Mexico’s equivalent of the Medal of Honor. He was the only person at that time to have received both tributes. As time went on, Silvestre Herrera continued to receive more recognition. In 1956 an elementary school in Phoenix was named after him, and in 1998, a brand new army reserve center opened in Mesa, Arizona. It was named Sergeant Silvestre S. Herrera Army Reserve Center. Not bad for a fellow who wasn’t even a citizen at the time of his military service.
Learn more at: Congressional Medal of Honor Recipient- Silvestre S. Herrera