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Honor veterans on Hero Street USA, Silvis, Illinois

Hero Street USA in Silvis, Illinois, is only a block and a half long, perched between Billy Goat Hill and Honey Creek. The short street near the Mississippi River lacked no shortage of sacrifice during World War II and the Korean War. Eight of the street’s young men gave the ultimate sacrifice during the mid-20th-century American conflicts, six during World War II, and two in the Korean Conflict.

Visit the Quad Cities sponsored my visit. When I saw Hero Street USA, Silvis, Illinois, on the itinerary, I expected a simple veterans memorial. I did not expect such a story of determination, sacrifice, and devotion to our country. I was awestruck and feel honored to tell this story.

Black Hero Street USA plaque saying that the neighborhood exemplified "American patriotism at its highest level" with the Hero Street Eight interpretive panel in the background.
Hero Street USA: Exemplifying American patriotism at its highest level

Tony Pompa, Frank Sandoval, William Sandoval, Claro Solis, Peter Masias, Joseph Sandoval, Joseph Gomez, and John S. Muños were all children of Mexican-Americans in the Silvis barrio. They weren’t the only ones to serve. The street’s 33 families provided more than 110 men and women for military service from World War II and beyond. The Department of Defense says the barrio sustained the highest neighborhood casualty rate in the United States.

View from the concrete stairway and rail up Billy Goat Hill.
View of the barrio’s perch between Honey Creek and Billy Goat Hill from the overlook’s stairs.

Finding a complicated refuge in Little Mexico

The Rock Island Railroad attracted Mexican-American immigrants who escaped the Mexican Revolution in 1919. The new residents worked hard, and the company recruited more. The railroad provided wooden boxcars to house the workers and their families. The new residents even turned a pair of boxcars into a church when the local Catholics refused them. 

However, the community complained that the workers weren’t paying taxes. They demanded that the company evict them from the railyard, but the community did not welcome the newcomers into their neighborhoods.

Therefore, the three-block barrio became “Little Mexico,” where the immigrants could own land. The Silvis Rail Yards dropped off the uninsulated boxcars, and the residents turned them into houses. The initial boxcar shape is still discernible today. The location was no paradise; Second Street was a trash dump. The hill towered above the dirt street, and the landowner permitted the children to play there.

When war came, the street sent its sons to fight for their new country. The Mexican Americans from Hero Street died in Burma, Holland, Germany, over Italy, and in Korea. They paid the ultimate price in some of the nation’s most famous battles. When the honored dead returned home, the hearses became mired in the mud. Therefore, the mourners carried the caskets up the street by hand.

All the repatriated remains rest in the Rock Island National Cemetery, but two men’s bodies were never found. This is what happened to them.

Related: Congress authorized Fort Scott‘s and Fort Leavenworth‘s national cemeteries a year before Rock Island’s became official.

Interpretive panel showing the Hero Street Eight's pictures and service records
The Hero Street Eight, next to the overlook’s stairs

Tony Pompa

When the United States entered World War II, Pompa lost his job at the Rock Island Arsenal because he was not a citizen. So he falsified his name and joined the Army Air Forces as a tail gunner. He had been in Italy for a month when anti-aircraft fire struck his bomber on January 31, 1944. Everyone else parachuted safely, but Pompa’s parachute became entangled in the control cables near the bottom hatch. He helped the waist gunner open the hatch but didn’t have time to jump.

He wrote letters home, saying he’d joined numerous bombing missions and looked forward to a furlough. However, Pompa’s remains rest in the Rock Island National Cemetery near the arsenal that dismissed him. 

Frank Sandoval 

Sandoval belonged to the 209th Engineer Combat Battalion in Burma, building 400 miles of the Ledo Road in northern India between 1943 and 1944.

On his way overseas, his train stopped at the Silvis Rail Yard, one block from his home. He saw a friend through a window and yelled, “Fast, find my dad!” When Sandoval’s father arrived, the train had left, and his family saw him no more.

His road-building battalion became infantry to seize Mykitina in northern Burma along with Merrill’s Marauders. He died in action on June 26, 1944, in Burma. He wrote home five days before his death. In the letter, he thanked God he was alive and well. 

Joseph Sandoval

Joe Sandoval, Frank’s older brother, died a few days before the European war ended. He fought with the 41st Armored Infantry Regiment in France. By April 1945, the war was essentially over. Nevertheless, the senior Sandoval died during a German counterattack in Schönebeck, Germany, near the Elbe River. The date was April 12, 1945, the same day President Franklin Roosevelt died.

Ten days later, the Americans and Soviets cut Germany in half when they shook hands across the Elbe. The European Theater’s war ended on May 8, 1945.

William “Willie” Sandoval

Willie was a paratrooper in the ill-fated Operation Market-Garden, later made famous in the book and movie A Bridge Too Far. Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery intended to create a corridor to strike Germany while avoiding the Siegfried Line’s fortifications. The operation would also liberate part of The Netherlands.

Sandoval was one of 20,000 paratroopers to jump into German-occupied Holland on September 17, 1944, the day after Sandoval turned 21. Sandoval served in the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division. The Germans named them “The Devils in Baggy Pants.”

F Company secured the Grave Bridge and fought to take the Nijmegen Bridge. They had to cross the 400-foot-wide Waal River in small boats while completely unprotected from gunfire. Arnhem, the next bridge, was the Bridge Too Far. Eventually, British troops relieved Sandoval’s unit on September 21, 1944. 

About two weeks later, the Wehrmacht overran his unit in Zyfflich, Germany, and his body was never recovered. A memorial plaque is in the Rock Island National Cemetery, and he’s also listed on the Sea Tablets of the Missing at the Netherlands American Cemetery, Margraten, Netherlands.

Claro Solis

Before Solis and his brother went to the recruiting office, he said, “Let’s see who gets a gold star for Mom.” (Servicemembers’ families receive a flag with a blue star for each family member. The blue changes to gold when a family member dies in the service.) Solis fought with the 120th Infantry Regiment across France and Belgium from June 1944 to January 1945.

He entered a military hospital on January 16 with artillery wounds in his lower intestine and humerus. He sustained the wounds while crossing a barbed wire fence. The military told his parents that his injuries were light, but in reality, he had undergone surgery to reconnect his intestine. He died on January 19. His death provided his mother’s gold star.

Solis wrote, “The Street is really not much, just mud and ruts, but right now to me, it is the greatest street in the world.”

Peter Macias 

Macias fought in the Ardennes-Alsace, Rhineland, and Central European campaigns before he died in Belgium on March 4, 1945, with the 139th Engineering Battalion.

Joseph “Cheppe” Gomez

After Gomez served in Europe during World War II, the military recalled him to Korean service, where he earned the Silver Star on May 17, 1951. He assaulted the enemy in the face of point-blank small arms and automatic weapons fire with the Second Infantry Division. Gomez “fiercely charged” the enemy with a fixed bayonet, forcing the enemy to retreat with heavy losses. He died from his wounds 11 days later.

Johnny Muños

Muños died during the Korean War’s Battle of Bloody Ridge on August 27, 1951. The UN forces assaulted the ridge to influence the armistice negotiations with the Chinese and North Koreans. Otherwise, it had little strategic value. The South Koreans attacked Hill 940 but were driven back.

United Nations forces counterattacked two days later. During the battle, Muños absorbed a direct hit from an artillery shell. His body was never recovered because nothing was left to recover.

Related: Jack Weinstein of St. Francis, Kansas, earned the Medal of Honor in another armistice-pressure attack.

Hero Street’s citizens continue to enlist in the nation’s armed services. Over 150 service members have signed up since the initial immigrants came in 1919.

Related: Visit Emporia, Kansas, the official home of Veterans’ Day. Cross the Mississippi River to honor two Congressional Medal of Honor recipients at LeClaire, Iowa‘s Freedom Rock.

The golden Mayan pyramid with US and Mayan embellishments topped with an American eagle, flag and gun on Hero Street USA
Detail of the Mayan pyramid

​Becoming Hero Street USA

Discrimination didn’t end after the servicemembers returned home. The original Silvis Veterans of Foreign Wars refused to accept Mexican-American members after the Korean War. Instead, they started their own VFW post in East Moline.

Alderman Joe Terronez fought to create Hero Street Memorial Park, to pave Second Street, and rename it for the neighborhood’s — and the nation’s — heroes. After years of city council footdragging, Terronez accomplished an end-around. He induced the Department of Housing and Urban Development to pay half the $88,000 project. Fundraisers went door to door to raise the rest of the money. 

Silvis renamed Second Street to Hero Street USA  and paved it in the 1970s. However, the effort to commemorate the Hero Street Eight wasn’t done. Four years later, the neighborhood carved a monument into Billy Goat Hill.

The monument, dedicated in 2007, honors all veterans.

Anthony Terronez, Joe’s cousin and an engineer for John Deere, was the park’s project manager. Terronez encouraged Deere to test its experimental excavation equipment on Billy Goat Hill’s steep slopes. The company agreed, and volunteers did the rough grading. 

Alderman Terronez became the state’s first Hispanic mayor in 1989.

Roxie’s reliable report: The park contains a playground, restrooms, and a steep walk to an overlook. The overlook’s pavement is the grotto’s roof. Interpretive panels explain the stories of Silvis, the barrio, and the Hero Street Eight.

The Hero Street Monument

Sergent Solis’s nephew Sonny sculpted the monument where Hero Street USA connects with Highway 92. The monument stands 18.5 feet tall, crowned by a flying eagle clutching a flag and an M-1 Garand in its outstretched talons. The Garand rests on a World War II-style helmet atop a golden Mayan-style stepped pyramid. Framed bas-relief busts of each Hero Street Eight member are on a black base. The fallen one’s name, service details, and parents are engraved below.

Gold stars on Hero Street

East Moline’s United Township High School painted gold stars in front of the Hero Street Eight’s homes. In 2022, steel stars from John Deere Harvester Works replaced the painted stars. After two years of work, the Hero Street Eight’s descendants, the City of Silvis, and Harvester Works employees celebrated at the Hero Street Monument. The fallen received full military honors.

The community holds Memorial Day services on Hero Street USA each year. To learn more, watch the Hero Street documentary series by Tammy Rundle of Fourth Wall Films.

Related: Visit the marker-filled Terry Moehnke Veterans Memorial Park, Fort Dodge, Iowa.

A burrito covered with tomatoes at Los Portales Mexican Restaurant, Moline, Illinois
Eat at Los Portales in Moline, Illinois.

Where to eat and stay

Eat at Los Portales Mexican Restaurant in nearby Moline. I savored the spicy burrito with a divine peach margarita. During the summer, celebrate Mexican heritage at Mercado on Fifth, an outdoor market held every Friday on Moline’s Fifth Avenue.

A tray of chocolates at Lagomarcino's, Moline, Illinois
Discover the divine at Lagomarcino’s.

Roxie’s reliable report: Eat lunch and buy some delectable chocolates at Lagomarcino’s Confectionary. Lagomarcino’s has been a Moline institution since 1908. Their shop combines a lunch counter, a chocolatier’s shop, and an old-fashioned ice cream parlor.

My Place Hotel (ad) in Davenport, Iowa, was my home base in the Quad Cities. I appreciated the extra space with the full kitchen, and the kind staff who prevented me from leaving all the clothes I’d hung in the closet.

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