Sylvestre S. Herrera

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A profile of the first Arizonan to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Ted Simons: After tomorrow, third Street near Indian School Road will be known as S. Herrera Way. It is being named for medal of honor recipient Sylvestre Herrera, who was born in Mexico, but brought to the United States as an infant. He was the first resident of Arizona to receive the medal of honor during World War II. Herrera has since passed away, but here's a story we did on Sylvestre Herrera just a few years ago.

Mike Sauceda: It was not really even his war, but Sylvestre Herrera of Glendale didn't find that out until he was 47. That's when his father told him he was really his uncle. He was born in Mexico and brought to El Paso and his uncle told him his Mexican citizenship meant he didn't have to go to war after being drafted. But he had a family and this was their country.

Sylvestre Herrera: That was the hardest part for me.

Mike Sauceda: And this was the country he loved. So in January of 1944, he was drafted into the army and spent seven months on the front line fighting Nazis in Europe and Africa with the army's 36th infantry division. March 15th, 1945, his odyssey was sealed. He was fighting near the German border.

Sylvestre Herrera: We were ordered to advance, and I was the first scout, I was about a quarter of a mile ahead of everybody. My second scout and I, we were always in the front and we were advancing and we were stopped by artillery, before we took cover.

Mike Sauceda: With his M1 rifle similar to this one and a hand grenade, he took out a Nazi machine gun nest and then went where only angels and war heroes dare tread. His foot found one land mine and another blew up in step with the first and both feet were gone.

Sylvestre Herrera: I kept firing. I think I shot about three guys from the -- from that machine gun. Because I got them, because they all went this way. I must have hit them right in the center. And one I hit him in the shoulder. So after that, I -- and -- I almost passed out. That's when my -- the rest of the squad finished up.

Mike Sauceda: But he never passed out. What kept him going?

Sylvestre Herrera: Love. Love of country, love of fellow man.

Mike Sauceda: He was saved by this medic. They pried this rock from his clenched fist and he later made it into a necklace. He had other exploits before he was injured, like this tank he took out with a rifle grenade launcher. He says the tank spun round and round because only one track was intact. On August 23rd, 1945, while on furlough, Herrera received this telegram informing him he was going to be awarded the country's greatest military declaration. The congressional medal of honor. He traveled to Washington where the president placed it around his neck, a day when 28 veterans were honored.

Sylvestre Herrera: Yeah, I'm proud. I'm proud of it, but I don't go out and telling -- hey, I got the medal!

Mike Sauceda: He says Truman is his favorite president.

Sylvestre Herrera: He took no bull from nobody. Reminds me of myself.

Mike Sauceda: His no-bull attitude got him in trouble but it makes war heros.

Sylvestre Herrera: I made sergeant three times and I was busted three times. Before fighting - for fighting an officer. He gave us an order, and I lost most of my squad. So I went over there and got in it with him.

Mike Sauceda: He says his Mexican heritage may have helped him in battle. His great-uncle fought along side Pancho Villa. After he received his award, Herrera day was declared in Arizona and he was given a parade.

Sylvestre Herrera: I was scared. Didn't know what to do.

Mike Sauceda: And residents raised $14,000 so he could buy a home. He had this home built on the land. He's a hero in the classical sense but he has mixed feelings on how he got his medal.

Sylvestre Herrera: It's not too fond to remember you had to kill people to be where you are, but we had no choice. They were shooting at us and we had to fight back.

Mike Sauceda: He's the only man in history to have the congressional medal of honor and the Mexican equivalent. He says awards won by him and other Hispanics helped Latinos.

Sylvestre Herrera: Yeah, we -- we got up a little notch, a little higher.

Mike Sauceda: After the war, Herrera went to the school on the G.I. bill and became a leather tooler. He learned silver Smithing and made his living. Herrera keeps his medals and other memorabilia in a room. Pictures of him with presidents and famous people abound. The rooms reflects his heroic nature, as well as the life he settled into after the war. He has five kids, eleven grandkids, three great grandchildren and his wife Ramona died in 1978. Although the world paints him as a hero, he doesn't feel he is one.

Sylvestre Herrera: No, I don't. It doesn't bother me one way or the other. No, I don't. I don't like to act big, because that will belittle me.

Ted Simons: Tomorrow on "Horizon" -- Hear how green schools are not only good for society and the environment, but how they make a good learning environment for students as well. That's Thursday at 7:00 on "Horizon." That's it for now. I'm Ted Simons. Thank you very much for joining us. You have a great evening. Captioning Performed By LNS Captioning

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