Silvestre Santana Herrera, World War II veteran and Medal of Honor recipient, was born in Camargo, Chihuahua, Mexico, on December 31, 1916. An uncle brought Herrera to El Paso, Texas, when he was only eighteen months old following the deaths of his parents due to an influenza outbreak. Herrera was raised first by his uncle in El Paso and then by a maternal aunt in Phoenix, Arizona. When he was drafted into the United States Army in January 1944, Herrera was informed that he could opt out of service due to his Mexican citizenship, but he chose to serve. He was deployed to Europe as a private first class with Company E, 142nd Infantry Regiment, 36th Infantry Division, also known as the Texas Division.
On March 15, 1945, Private First Class Herrera’s platoon was halted by machine-gun fire along a road near Mertzwiller, France. While the rest of his unit was pinned down, Herrera single-handedly assaulted the enemy emplacement, killing several enemy soldiers and capturing eight more. When a second enemy emplacement opened fire on the platoon, Herrera again moved forward—alone—to attack the position. Using a two-by-four to probe the ground ahead, he carefully negotiated his way through a heavily-mined field but was forced to abandon his slower pace after coming under enemy fire. Herrera attempted to take cover but stepped on a landmine which launched him into the air. He then landed on a second landmine and had both legs severed below the knee. Despite the pain and loss of blood, Herrera lay on his stomach and continued to lay down accurate rifle fire to keep the enemy pinned in the emplacement. Herrera’s platoon was able to flank around and capture the second emplacement.
He spent two months in an army field hospital before being transferred to the Army Amputation Center in Utah. On August, 23, 1945, in a ceremony at the White House, President Harry S. Truman presented Silvestre Herrera the nation’s highest honor, the Congressional Medal of Honor, for his “magnificent courage, extraordinary heroism, and willing self-sacrifice.” Herrera was also later given Mexico’s highest award for valor, the Premier Mérito Militar, for his military service during World War II. He was the only individual to earn both honors.
Herrera was discharged from the U.S. Army with the rank of sergeant. Following the war, Herrera, and his wife, Ramona Hidalgo Herrera, settled in Phoenix, Arizona, where they raised their seven children—sons Silvestre Jr. and Robert, and daughters Maria, Elva, Josephine, Raquel, and Ramona. In 1945 the state of Arizona declared August 14 “Herrera Day,” and today, a street and an elementary school in Phoenix bear his name. In 2004 the U.S. Army dedicated the Silvestre Herrera U.S. Army Reserve Training Center in Mesa, Arizona. Herrera worked as a leather artisan for many years and eventually retired to Glendale, Arizona, where he died on November 26, 2007, due to age-related causes. He was buried at Resthaven Park Cemetery in Glendale with full military honors.