Silvestre Santana Herrera (17 July 1917 to 26 November 2007) was a private first class of the United States Army who received the Medal of Honour for his heroic actions in Mertzwiller, France, during World War II.
After he mounted a one-man charge on an enemy stronghold which resulted in the solo capture of eight enemy soldiers, his unit was again attacked by a machine gun placement across another minefield. Herrera again that day single-handedly took on the enemy. While crossing the second minefield, he lost one of his legs to a land mine explosion then the other leg to a second explosion. Unable to continue his 1-man advance and despite a severe loss of blood, he single-handedly held the forward position to provide covering fire pinning down the enemy with his M1 Garand. His accurate rifle fire allowed his comrades to overrun the enemy position in a flanking action clear of the minefield.
Born in Mexico of Hispanic heritage, Herrera was the only living person authorised to wear both the Medal of Honour and Mexico’s Order of Military Merit (First Class) at the time of his death. A legend in the state of Arizona, he was honoured by the city of Phoenix officially renaming the portion of 3rd Street that runs from Indian School Road North into the park, “S. Herrera Way”.
Herrera was born in the Mexican city of Camargo, Chihuahua, and not, as he believed until he was twenty-seven, in El Paso, Texas. His parents died in an influenza epidemic when he was only a year old, and the man he had thought was his father was really an uncle who had brought the 18-month-old Herrera there to provide him with a better life in the United States. Herrera worked as a farm hand, marrying and raising a family in El Paso before moving to Phoenix, Arizona with his American wife Ramona and three children, Mary, Elva, Silvestre, Jr. and his uncle. When the United States entered World War II Herrera was drafted into the Texas National Guard, 36th Division. Expecting yet another child, Herrera felt it would be important for his parents to be there for him while he was gone and so went to break the news.
That is when the man Herrera had believed to be his father gave him the stunning news of his Mexican birth, and said, “Son, you don’t have to go, they can’t draft you…you aren’t an American citizen.” Even in the face of these multiple shocks, and a perfect opportunity to dodge the war, Herrera was unswayed. As he later related, “I thought, I’m going anyway. I didn’t want anybody to die in my place… I felt that I had my adopted country that had been so nice to me. I thought, I have an American wife and the kids and one on the way.” It was only the first of several life-changing acts of heroism Herrera would take.
World War II
The 142d Infantry landed in Italy in the autumn of 1944 to stage for its deployment in France. Upon the completion of Operation Dragoon in mid-September Mediterranean French ports were liberated. The 142nd landed in Marseilles in the Fall, then deployed near the front in the Alsace region in early March 1945.
On March 15, kick-off day of Operation Undertone, an attack on German positions along a 75 km line from Saarbrücken to Haguenau, 1945 Herrera’s unit found itself engaged in combat in a forest in the vicinity of the Bas-Rhin town of Mertzwiller, 5 miles northwest of Haguenau. His platoon came under heavy enemy machine gun fire from the woods, forcing most of the men to seek cover. Herrera charged the enemy stronghold single-handedly, firing his M1 rifle from his hip and ending the threat with a pair of grenades. Eight enemy soldiers threw down their weapons and surrendered.
Later that same day, his platoon was attacked and pinned down by a second enemy stronghold, protected by an extensive mine field. Ignoring the danger Herrera again single-handedly charged, seeking to draw fire away from his comrades. A mine exploded and shattered one leg below the knee. Staggering up on his good leg he stepped on a second, severing that leg below the knee. Still Herrera laid machine gun fire while kneeling, allowing members of his platoon to skirt the mine field and capture the enemy position.
As Herrera lay in the Army hospital recovering from his wounds, President Truman was not sure the young man would be well enough for a formal presentation of the Medal of Honour. However, on 23 August 1945, Silvestre rolled his wheelchair across the White House lawn so that the President could present him with his award.
“He told me he would rather be awarded the Medal of Honor than be president of the United States,” Herrera recalled in a 2005 interview. “That made me even more proud.”
Medal of Honour Citation
Silvestre S. Herrera
Rank and organization: Private First Class, U.S. Army, Company E, 142d Infantry, 36th Infantry Division.
Place and date: Near Mertzwiller, France, March 15, 1945.
Entered service at: Phoenix, Arizona
G.O. No.: 75, September 5, 1945.
He advanced with a platoon along a wooded road until stopped by heavy enemy machinegun fire. As the rest of the unit took cover, he made a 1-man frontal assault on a strongpoint and captured 8 enemy soldiers. When the platoon resumed its advance and was subjected to fire from a second emplacement beyond an extensive minefield, Pvt. Herrera again moved forward, disregarding the danger of exploding mines, to attack the position. He stepped on a mine and had both feet severed but, despite intense pain and unchecked loss of blood, he pinned down the enemy with accurate rifle fire while a friendly squad captured the enemy gun by skirting the minefield and rushing in from the flank. The magnificent courage, extraordinary heroism, and willing self-sacrifice displayed by Pvt. Herrera resulted in the capture of 2 enemy strongpoints and the taking of 8 prisoners.
A year after Herrera received his White House presentation of the Medal of Honour from President Truman, the Government of Mexico presented him with its Order of Military Merit (First Class).
Herrera became the first resident from Arizona to receive the Medal of Honour during World War II. Arizona Governor Sidney P. Osborn declared 14 August 1945 to be “Herrera Day” and welcomed home Pfc. Silvestre S. Herrera with a hero’s parade. A drive to bestow upon him citizenship of the only country he knew was started and as a result he was granted United States Citizenship. The citizens of Arizona raised $14,000 to provide him and his growing family with a new home.
Valle Del Sol, Inc. recognised Herrera with a Special Recognition Award in 1994, and with a Hall of Fame award in 1999. On 13 March 1996, Herrera was honoured by the United States House of Representatives upon recommendation of Congressman Ed Pastor. An elementary school in Phoenix, Arizona – the Silvestre S Herrera School – bears his name.
On 24 October 1998, the United States Army Reserve Centre in Mesa, which houses the 164th Corps Support Group and later, the 6253rd United States Army Hospital, was dedicated in honour of Silvestre S. Herrera. This dedication was thanks in large part to the efforts of neighbour and long time admirer of Herrera, Sergeant Major Douglas Mattson (retired).
On 26 November 2007, Herrera died at his home in Glendale, Arizona. He was buried with full military honours in the West Resthaven Park Cemetery in Glendale. He was buried alongside his wife Ramona, who died in 1991.
Awards and Decorations
- Medal of Honour.
- Purple Heart.
- American Campaign Medal.
- European-African-Middle East Campaign Medal.
- World War II Victory Medal.
- Mexican Order of Military Merit (First Class).