Army private won Medal of Honor and Mexico’s highest award for valor
Silvestre Herrera, a Mexican-born World War II Medal of Honor recipient who captured eight German soldiers after single-handedly assaulting a machine-gun nest and continued fighting after losing both of his feet in a minefield during a second solo assault on another enemy position, has died. He was 90.
Herrera died Monday of age-related causes at his home in Glendale, Ariz., said Mona Kempfer, his youngest daughter.
An Army private first class with the 142nd Infantry Regiment of the 36th Infantry Division, Herrera was advancing with his fellow platoon members along a wooded road near Mertzwiller, France, on March 15, 1945, when they were stopped by heavy machine-gun fire.
As the rest of his platoon took cover, Herrera charged the enemy position by himself.
“There was too much at stake,” he said of his actions in a 2005 interview with the Arizona Republic.
Herrera fired his semiautomatic M1 rifle from his hip as he ran toward the enemy machine-gun emplacement. He then tossed two hand grenades at it, causing the eight enemy soldiers to throw down their weapons and surrender.
A short while later, Herrera attacked another enemy machine-gun emplacement that was set up beyond an extensive minefield.
“I knew there was a minefield,” he said in the 2005 interview. “I had a two-by-four and was pushing it ahead of me.”
But that slowed his progress, and he threw it away.
“That’s when I made my mistake,” he recalled.
He stood and charged the enemy machine-gun position. But as he neared it, he stepped on one land mine, then another. The explosions blew off both of his feet.
Even then, Herrera continued fighting, on his knees.
“Despite intense pain and unchecked loss of blood,” his Medal of Honor citation reads, “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.”
Herrera was the first Arizonan to receive the Medal of Honor during World War II; President Truman presented him with the nation’s highest award for military valor during a ceremony at the White House in August 1945.
“He told me he would rather be awarded the Medal of Honor than be president of the United States,” Herrera recalled in the 2005 interview. “That made me even more proud.”
Of the 464 Medal of Honor recipients during World War II, 32 are still living, according to the Congressional Medal of Honor Society.
For his heroic actions, Herrera also received Mexico’s highest award for valor, which was awarded to him because he was still a Mexican citizen when he was fighting in Europe. He reportedly was the only person ever to have been awarded both medals.
It wasn’t until Herrera received his draft notice before entering the Army in January 1944 that he discovered that he had been born in Mexico.
As he later recalled in an interview, when he told his father he was being drafted, his father surprised him by saying, “Son, you don’t have to go. They can’t draft you.”
When he asked why, his father informed him that he wasn’t an American citizen. Then his father made an even more stunning revelation: He was not Herrera’s real father.
Herrera, it turned out, had been born in Camargo, Chihuahua, on Dec. 31, 1916. And the man he knew as his father was actually his uncle. His own parents had died during an influenza epidemic when he was a year old, and his uncle had taken him to El Paso.
At the time he received his draft notice, Herrera had three children and another on the way, and he was working as a mechanic at a Phoenix dairy.
Although he was a Mexican national, he never considered avoiding serving in the U.S. miliary.
“I didn’t want anybody to die in my place,” he later explained, adding that he felt he owed something to “my adopted country that had been so nice to me.”
The same month Herrera received the Medal of Honor, the governor of Arizona declared Aug. 14 “Herrera Day,” and Herrera was welcomed home to Phoenix with a hero’s parade.
Arizona residents also honored Herrera, who was granted U.S. citizenship at the time, by raising thousands of dollars to build him and his family a new home.
After the war, Herrera worked as a leather artisan in Phoenix, where an elementary school was named in his honor; he moved to nearby Glendale after retiring in the late 1970s.
“Dad never really talked much about his experiences in the war, and he never considered himself a hero,” said Kempfer. “He said the people in his platoon, his comrades, were the heroes. He was a very modest, very humble man.”
Because of Herrera’s injuries caused by the land mines, doctors amputated both legs just below the knees and fitted him with artificial limbs. Kempfer said that never stopped her father from doing anything.
“He never considered himself disabled,” she said. “He may have lost his legs, but he had his hands and his mind, and he was able to raise seven children and make a living for himself and his family.”
Herrera’s wife, Ramona, died in 1991. In addition to Kempfer, he is survived by four other children, Silvestre, Robert, Elva Corrales and Kelly Harris; 11 grandchildren; and 11 great-grandchildren.