Silvestre Herrera’s story is one of unwavering courage that transcended national boundaries. Born in Mexico in 1917, Herrera found himself fighting for the United States in World War II, a testament to his deep-seated belief in freedom and his adopted country’s ideals. His heroism on the battlefield earned him the nation’s highest military honor, the Medal of Honor, solidifying his place as a legend in American history.

Herrera’s defining moment of valor came on March 15, 1945, in the French town of Mertzwiller. As a private first class in the 36th Infantry Division, he found himself amidst a fierce firefight against heavily fortified German positions. His company, pinned down by enemy machine gun fire, faced a seemingly insurmountable obstacle: a minefield blocking the path to victory.

Without hesitation, Herrera, fueled by an unwavering resolve, volunteered to clear the way. He bravely charged into the minefield, his every step a gamble with death. Tragedy struck when he stepped on a mine, severing both his feet and unleashing agonizing pain. Despite his debilitating injury, Herrera refused to surrender. He gritted his teeth, propped himself up on his elbows, and continued firing his rifle with unyielding accuracy.

His actions were a beacon of hope for his comrades. Inspired by his sacrifice, a flanking squad managed to bypass the minefield and neutralize the enemy machine gun. Herrera’s unwavering courage and selfless act turned the tide of the battle, saving countless lives and paving the way for Allied victory.

News of Herrera’s heroism reached the highest echelons of the military. In 1945, President Harry Truman awarded him the Medal of Honor, recognizing his “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action above and beyond the call of duty.” The citation described his actions as “an act of extraordinary heroism which will live forever in the annals of military history.”

Herrera’s story resonated far beyond the battlefield. It became a symbol of the unwavering spirit and sacrifice of immigrants who fought for the freedom of their adopted country. He received a hero’s welcome upon his return to Arizona, his home state, and his tale of bravery inspired generations to come.

In 1946, Mexico, recognizing his valor, bestowed upon him the Order of Military Merit (First Class), an unprecedented honor for a non-citizen. Herrera thus became the only person in history to be decorated with the highest military awards of both the United States and Mexico.

Silvestre Herrera’s legacy is not just one of battlefield heroism, but also one of unwavering dedication to the ideals he held dear. His story serves as a powerful reminder that courage and selflessness transcend national borders, and that the pursuit of freedom can unite people from all walks of life.

Even after the war, Herrera continued to serve his community, working as a counselor for the Veterans Administration and advocating for veterans’ rights. He passed away in 2007, leaving behind a legacy that continues to inspire and remind us that heroism knows no bounds.

interestingly, when Herrera received his draft notice in 1944, 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.”

Herrera’s “father” informed him that he was actually his uncle. His real father and mother had died in an influenza epidemic in Chihuahua, Mexico when Herrera was a year old. His uncle brought him to the U.S. and raised him as his own son.

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.”

Photo credit: Arizona Veterans Hall of Fame Society