Silvestre Herrera was the only person to earn both countries' medals for valor on the field of battle. He was born to the Almanza family on December 31st, 1916 in Camargo, Chihuahua, Mexico. Following the death of his parents to an influenza epidemic in 1917, he came to the United States via El Paso, Texas and was raised by his uncle until the age of 10. He then moved to Phoenix, Arizona.
He spent the rest of his youth in the care of his maternal aunt. He adopted his mom's maiden name - "Herrera" and the country that had taken him in. Legally, Herrera remained a Mexican National and although he did not owe service to the United States when he was drafted, entered the Army on January 13, 1944. He joined the men of the 36th Infantry Division of the Texas National Guard to train for combat in Europe.
Months into his training as a Private First Class, he was busy studying to become a US Citizen; however survival took precedence over study. His unit was one of the first American units to land in Europe during World War II.
On March 15, 1945, his life would change forever. Herrera's unit found itself engaged in combat in a forest in the vicinity of Mertzwiller France. His platoon came under heavy enemy fire from the woods, forcing most of the men to seek cover. Herrera charged the enemy stronghold and ended the threat, resulting in his single-handed capture of eight enemy soldiers.
Later that same day, his platoon came under fire and was attacked by a second enemy stronghold. The platoon found itself pinned down and the situation was difficult because there was a mine field between the platoon and the enemy. Herrera entered the mine field with the intention of attacking the enemy stronghold while drawing enemy gunfire away from his comrades. A mine exploded and shattered his leg. Then another mine exploded, severing his good leg below the knee. Herrera continued to fire upon the enemy with his own rifle, an act which allowed the members of his platoon to skirt the mine field and capture the enemy position.
Mr. Herrera's Congressional Medal of Honor citation reads:
"The President of the United States in the name of The Congress takes pleasure in presenting the Medal of Honor to:
SILVESTRE S. HERRERA Rank and organization: Private First Class, U.S. Army, Company E, 142d Infantry, 36th Infantry Division. Place and date: Near Mertzwiller, France, 15 March 1945. Entered service at: Phoenix, Ariz. G.O. No.: 75, 5 September 1945.
Citation: He advanced with a platoon along a wooded road until stopped by heavy enemy machine gun fire. As the rest of the unit took cover, he made a 1-man frontal assault on a strongpoint and captured 8 enemy soldiers. When the platoon resumed its advance and was subjected to fire from a second emplacement beyond an extensive minefield, Pvt. Herrera again moved forward, disregarding the danger of exploding mines, to attack the position.
He stepped on a mine and had both feet severed but, despite intense pain and unchecked loss of blood, 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.
The magnificent courage, extraordinary heroism, and willing self-sacrifice displayed by Pvt. Herrera resulted in the capture of 2 enemy strong points and the taking of 8 prisoners."
On August 23, 1945, Mr. Herrera crossed the White House lawn in his wheelchair to the Reception Hall so that President Harry S. Truman could present him with The Congressional Medal of Honor.
He was discharged in March 1946 from the Army as a sergeant and during this time, he also became a US Citizen. Despite risking his life, Herrera once said he didn't consider himself a particularly brave man. He considered himself one of the lucky ones to survive and be awarded The Congressional Medal of Honor.
After the war, he worked as an artisan, crafting leather, and lived a quiet, private and humble life. In 1956, an elementary school was named after him at 1350 S. 11th St. in Phoenix. In 2004, the Army dedicated the Silvestre S. Herrera U.S. Army Reserve Training Center, 6158 S. Avery St., in Mesa.