The subtle power of words and letters carry extra weight and emotion in the sensitive, sympathetic new documentary, “Letters Home to Hero Street,” produced by Moline-based Fourth Wall Films and WQPT-TV.
Over a deliberate, patiently-paced 25 minutes, director Kelly Rundle (with his producing partner and spouse, Tammy) simply and straightforwardly tells the ordinary (yet extraordinary) story of Frank Sandoval, of Silvis, who was 23 when he was killed in Burma during World War II.
Mr. Sandoval was one of eight Mexican-American men who lived on 2nd Street in Silvis — known since 1969 as Hero Street USA — to fall in combat in World War II and the Korean War, the most from a single street in America. He joined the Army on Oct. 3, 1942, and served in North Burma with Co. C 209 Engineer Combat Battalion. He was killed in action on June 26, 1944.
WQPT, Quad-Cities PBS, and Fourth Wall Films teamed up to produce the affecting documentary, which depicts Eric Juarez as Frank, reading excerpts from among 130 letters he sent home to his family during the 20-month course of his Army experience.
The U.S. military lost a staggering 407,316 armed forces during just the four years of its involvement in World War II, and one of the chief values of “Letters Home” is how it tenderly, intimately conveys the personal cost of the war — its effect on one solider and one family. Frank Sandoval was among four Sandoval sons to serve in World War II; he had five brothers and four sisters altogether.
The documentary features Cindy Ramos in the silent, worried role of their mother, and Maya Chavez (who is actually a distant relative of another of the Hero Street eight, Claro Soliz) as “Sis,” a composite of two Sandoval sisters.
At the film start, we see Sis reading a letter to her mother in Spanish (the letters were in English, but the parents could not read Spanish or English). Frank often notes in his missives to tell “Ma” not to worry about him; he even hides a two-week hospitalization from her, when he injured his knee in training.
Frank starts his Army training at Camp Grant outside Rockford, and by December 1942 is at Camp Beale, north of Sacramento, Calif. The documentary often shows Mr. Juarez in uniform matter-of-factly talking directly to the camera.
The Sandovals are a devoutly Catholic family, and Frank reassures them that he always says prayers before he goes to sleep, and he profoundly misses home. His last letter — May 22, 1944, just a month before his death — says hopefully, “Just pray to God that we may come home and this war will be over soon.”
The film seamlessly weaves in black-and-white Army archival footage of many parts of the soldiers’ war journey — traveling by train and ship, getting physicals, doing calisthenics, outdoor combat training exercises and the use of “V Mail” (or “Victory Mail”) to send letters back and forth for free. We see shots of the actual Sandoval letters and postmarks, including one Feb. 24, 1943 from Camp Beale, with a 6-cent stamp.
Frank reluctantly accepts his Army role; he doesn’t like it, but what can you do, he says. At one point, he mails home his last will and testament. After being shipped out from New York by a luxury liner, Frank arrives in Bombay, India, Oct. 27, 1943.
“You know how 2nd Street looks? This place looks worse,” he writes of the impoverished city. We see echoes of Pearl Harbor as a Dec. 7, 1943 letter is read. After Christmas, where we see Sis reading outside as snow falls, Frank writes that his holy day “was just another day,” but also: “I guess we could be in a worse spot.”
With effective use of melancholy, contemplative background music, the film relates the concern Frank has for his mother, because his older brother Joe also is serving overseas. Frank helped build roads in nearby Burma starting in March 1944. He complains about the Army food, preferring home-cooked beans, even though “You know how tired we used to get of those beans,” he writes. “This Army life is no gravy.”
The rain doesn’t stop the Army, as nothing will stop the Army — jungles, storms, mud or otherwise, Frank says. We also learn how the Army censored letters, actually cutting bits of paper out of letters.
Near the end of “Letters Home,” Frank blows out the gaslight in his tent (a dark, symbolic foreshadowing?). We see a messenger bicycle past the former LeClaire Hotel in Moline to the Sandoval home to deliver the tragic news, accompanied by mournful strings. But we don’t see any reaction from the family. It would be far too painful, and this is above all an understated treatment of a powerful tale.
Joe Sandoval was killed in Germany on April 14, 1945 (at 26), and we see photos of each of the Hero Street eight. This respectful tribute — made with the help of two surviving Sandoval siblings, Tanilo and Georgia — premiered Thursday, Jan. 15, at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church in Silvis.
For more information, visit www.herostreetmovie.com
Photos courtesy of Fourth Wall Films