On this day in 1945, a hero receives the Medal of Honor from President Harry S Truman. Silvestre Santana Herrera was perhaps an unlikely hero? He was born in Mexico, but he had no idea that he wasn’t an American until he received his draft notice.
Turns out that Herrera’s uncle had raised the boy as his own son in America. Herrera had been orphaned as an infant, and he had no idea that he’d ever lived in Mexico.
Herrera could have avoided the draft, since he wasn’t an American, but his response was swift and sure: First, he enlisted in the Army. Second, he began studying to become an American citizen.
“Well, my wife, Ramona, was born here in the United States and we have three kids,” he later explained, “so I’m going to the war to help my country.”
Pfc. Herrera fought with Company E, 2d Battalion, 142d Infantry Regiment, 36th Infantry Division in both Italy and France, but it was his bravery in France that would be remembered.
Herrera’s heroism came on March 15, 1945, as his platoon advanced down a wooded trail near Mertzwiller, France. Suddenly, our soldiers were under attack. German machine gun fire was raining down on them, and the unit became pinned down.
From all accounts, Herrera barely blinked an eye. He sprang into action, running towards the enemy position as he shot from the hip and threw hand grenades. Presumably, the enemy had no idea what to do with such a spectacle! The German soldiers surrendered.
But Herrera wasn’t done yet.
The platoon continued to advance down the road and came under fire a second time. Once again, Herrera was on the move, running toward the second emplacement. “I figured since I took care of one machine gun, I could take care of this one, too,” he shrugged.
He wouldn’t be as lucky the second time because a minefield stood between him and the enemy emplacement. “I stepped on a shoe mine (land mine) and it blew me into the air,” he described. “When I came down, I hit another one, and I had lost both legs just below the knee.”
Miraculously, Herrera kept firing in the face of his pain. His continued accurate shots allowed the rest of his squad to move forward and capture the machine gun nest. “I was almost passed out when I heard someone else shooting,” Herrera remembers.
He was evacuated soon afterwards.
“The magnificent courage, extraordinary heroism, and willing self-sacrifice displayed by Pvt. Herrera,” his Medal citation concludes, “resulted in the capture of two enemy strongpoints and the taking of eight prisoners.”
Herrera’s adopted country rewarded him with a Medal of Honor—and with U.S. citizenship. Meanwhile, his country of birth awarded Herrera Mexico’s highest medal for valor, too. Herrera remains one of the few to receive both decorations.
Citizens in Herrera’s home state were proud of what he had done. They raised $14,000 to help build a home for his family, so when Herrera was honorably discharged as a sergeant in 1946, he did what so many Medal recipients before him have done: He returned home to a quiet life, working hard and raising his kids. He had two prosthetic feet, but shrugged it off. “I didn’t want anybody to feel sorry for me,” he said. “I lived a very happy life.”
Many decades later, Herrera would pass away in his sleep at age 90, survived by five children, 11 grandchildren, and 17 great-grandchildren.
Rest in peace, Sir.
Ethnic and Racial Minorities in the U.S. Military: An Encyclopedia (Alexander M. Bielakowski ed. ) (Vol. I)
Medal of Honor citation (Silvestre Santana Herrera; WWII)
Peter Collier et al., Medal of Honor: Portraits of Honor beyond the Call of Duty (3d ed. 2011)
Robert Barrett, Pendergast remembers war hero (Arizona Republic; Feb. 19, 1996)
Scott Baron, Valor of Many Stripes: Remarkable Americans in World War II (2019)
Silvestre Santana Herrera (Texas State Cemetery website)