Memorial Day was still three months away when Angelina Sandoval announced to her family, “It is already time for the flowers.” The 87-year-old matriarch of Hero Street then gave her son Tanilo the money so he could purchase fresh flowers for the graves of his two brothers. “I think I’ve only missed one Memorial Day since my brothers got killed,” says Tanilo, 58. The names of Frank and Joseph Sandoval will be among the many recalled this Memorial Day when the flags fly high on Billy Goat Hill and the most honored block and a half in America echoes with tales of valor and sacrifice in war. “As a youngster I would see these military men come home on leave, and that would inspire the younger generation who were waiting to turn 18 and serve,” recalls Sonny Soliz, 51. “All the boys on Hero Street could hardly wait to serve our country.”
Indeed, the 38 Mexican-American families that live along this unprepossessing concrete strip on the fringes of Silvis, Ill. (pop. 7,771) have sent some 110 men and women into America’s armed services, surely more than any other neighborhood of its size in the country. Forty-five fought in World War II, and at least a dozen more in Korea and Vietnam. Eight of those fathers, brothers and sons never returned from the battles of WW II and Korea: Peter Masias, Tony Pompa, Claro Soliz, the Sandoval brothers, William Sandoval, Joseph Gomez and John Muños. A concrete memorial on the hill bears their names, along with those of seven others who lived elsewhere in Silvis. The monument stands atop the steep slopes of Billy Goat Hill, where the future soldiers once fought make-believe wars. Below the crest, where the boys once gathered to sing and carouse the night before one of them was to leave for the war, a 155-mm howitzer stands sentinel over their legacy to the children of succeeding generations, a playground with basketball court and swings. Built in 1971, the memorial park was conceived by Silvis Alderman Joe Terronez, 55, who spearheaded the drive to honor Hero Street with a practical goal in mind: He wanted it paved.
Second Street, as it was called before Terronez got the name changed in 1969, was just a strip of dirt when nearly all its young men were drafted or enlisted to fight in World War II. The neighborhood was founded in the 1920s by migrant railroad workers who had been living with their families in boxcars at a nearby yard. Forced to move in 1929, many of them hauled their boxcars across the tracks to a clearing they’d hacked out of the brush with axes and machetes. When the spring rains came to the Mississippi River town, mud rolled down the hill and filled the rutted street. During the war, the hearse bringing home the dead always sank in the mud, so friends and relatives would have to rescue the casket. “We’d track mud into the living room,” recalls Terronez. “It was always a mess.”
To the mothers of that time, all the boys of Hero Street’s close-knit families were their hijos (sons), but few lost as much as Senora Sandoval. All six of her sons served. Frank, whose slingshots were among the best in Silvis, was killed in northern Burma on June 29,1944 at age 23. Ten months later, on April 14,1945—only 23 days before Germany surrendered—his brother Joseph, 26, was killed when his unit was overrun by Nazi soldiers. The youngest, Santiago, made it home after being wounded in Korea, only to be killed five weeks later in a car crash. “My mother doesn’t forget,” says her daughter, Georgia Herrera. “It is a daily thing with her. She talks about it constantly.”
No longer able to climb stairs, Senora Sandoval now keeps to her green cinder-block room in the basement, where she manages with the aid of a walker and the help of her children, who stop by several times a day to care for her. Though the Sandovals mourn, Tanilo, who served in the Army during WW II, feels that his family harbors no anger. “I think Americans of all nationalities thought it was their duty back in World War II,” he says. “I don’t think there were any questions asked like there were in Vietnam.”
Even so, his sister Georgia cannot forget how the loss of her brothers devastated the family. “I don’t think anyone who hasn’t experienced it can really explain to you the feeling,” she says. “Now when you hear about war, they want to get into it in Nicaragua, you think to yourself, ‘I wish it wouldn’t be so.’ ” Despite her misgivings, family members still enlist. Señora Sandoval has a grandson in the Army and a great-grandson in the Air Force. They join, Georgia suggests, not out of patriotism but “because there are no jobs and no money to go and get an education.”
Both Georgia and her brother are outraged by what they believe is discriminatory treatment of Hispanic Americans. Says Georgia: “Lots of His-panics are not treated like citizens even if they were born here. Right here on this street is a good example of what the Hispanics did for this country.” When Mexican-American soldiers came back from WW Il, they were unwelcome at the original Silvis Veterans of Foreign Wars post and had to start their own. To this day two separate VFW contingents attend Memorial Day ceremonies on Hero Street.
Despite such unequal treatment the Mexican-American families “did not resent their sacrifice,” says Sonny Soliz, whose uncle, Claro Soliz, died at 23 fighting in Belgium on Jan. 19,1945. “They knew the dangers involved. They were proud.” Soliz, an art teacher and athletic director at Silvis Junior High School, recalls that his uncle “was a very good artist. I was inspired by him.” In 1974, to earn his master’s degree in art education from Western Illinois University, Soliz painted a series of 13 watercolors about his street and its heroes. One shows Soliz’ father at Rock Island cemetery thinking of his brother Claro, who is seen at the moment of his death falling over a barbed-wire fence. Another shows neighbor Tony Pompa, who flew tail gunner in a bomber, framed by the wreckage of his plane. Tony had enlisted after being fired from his job at a government arsenal because he was not a U.S. citizen. He lied about his age—he was only 17—and gave the recruiters a false name. Two and a half years later Pompa’s aircraft was hit by shrapnel over Aviano, Italy. Other crew members bailed out, but Tony went down in the flaming plane, leaving a pregnant wife and an infant child. Tony was buried under his assumed name, “Lopez,” and his anguished relatives had to badger the Army until the gravestone was carved correctly.
Today Tony Pompa’s granddaughter, Alana Lee, 18, is in the Army, part of the enduring tradition of the Hero Street Eight. “Yes, they’re dead,” says Sonny Soliz, “but they’re still alive to us. It’s good for the country to have something like Hero Street to inspire young people.”
Soliz’ brother Tony, who served in the Navy and now runs a barbershop, lost his neighborhood pals, John Muños and Joseph Gomez, in Korea. He still has the last two letters he wrote to them. Both envelopes were returned in 1951 marked “Verified Deceased.” “I was out to sea when I got those letters back and I just broke down,” says Tony. An earlier letter, dated Aug. 13, 1951, which Muños wrote him from Korea, is poignantly unhappy. “Them bastards didn’t waste too much time getting me to this lousy hole…. This place isn’t fit for a dog…. Right now we’re here on the front lines.” Muños was killed 14 days later.
Among all the heroes of Hero Street, none showed more bravery in action than Joseph Gomez. Having served in Germany after World War II, Gomez was called from the Reserves to go to Korea in September 1950. There, a gallant self-sacrifice on May 17,1951 earned him a posthumous Silver Star. His Army citation notes: “During a counterattack launched by his company, Private Gomez, with complete disregard for his own safety, assaulted enemy positions in the face of point-blank small-arms and automatic-weapons fire. In a final assault under intense enemy fire, he fiercely charged the enemy with fixed bayonet, repulsing him with heavy losses and clearing the position.” His stomach and chest riddled with Chinese bullets, Gomez died 11 days later.
“I always wondered why there was war and a lot of dying and a lot of suffering,” says his daughter, Linda Diaz, 34, who was 15 months old when he died and is now a mother of three living in Port Byron, Ill. “I can understand how our people feel about losing these boys because of the war the way it was. But war is futile, and it hasn’t proved anything by our boys getting killed.” A Jehovah’s Witness, Linda believes in pacifism and would like to leave her father’s death behind. But Joe Terronez is lobbying to get a Medal of Honor for Gomez. Hero Street’s fallen sons would have appreciated Terronez’ campaign to honor their home block. As Claro Soliz put it in a letter home before he died, “The street is really not much, just mud and ruts, but right now to me it is the greatest street in the world.”