By Marc Wilson
Georgia was 12 years old in 1944 when the Army sent word that her older brother, Frank, had been killed in action in Burma. “Please do not picture the worst, for he went quickly, perhaps not knowing it,” Army chaplain Lloyd Kessler wrote to her parents, Eduvigues and Angelina Sandoval.
Georgia and her family learned less than a year later that her oldest brother, Joseph, was killed in action in Germany in April 1945, killed in combat the day after his unit was told the war was over.
After each brother’s death, Georgia heard the haunting, unending wails of her mother.
After Joe died, her mother forbid the playing the family radio.
The radio had been a present to her from Joe. He was dead, so was the radio. Their house would be forever in silent mourning.
In my mind — Georgia Sandoval Herrera, who died September 26 at the age of 89 at her home in East Moline – is one of the unheralded heroines of Hero Street U.S.A.
She was the younger sister of Joseph and Frank Sandoval, two of the eight men from Hero Street in Silvis, Illinois, who were killed in action in World War II and Korea. The street – a block and one-half long – had more combat deaths than any other single street in America.
I came to know her because Georgia was a record-keeper.
She kept thorough records about her parents, who fled from the Mexican Revolution in the late 1910s to Silvis where he worked for the Rock Island Railroad at its 900-acre rail yard.
In my book, Hero Street U.S.A., I used – with extensive help from Georgia — the story of Eduvigues and Angelina to tell the story of some Mexicans refugees who fled to the United States to avoid civil war, disease and starvation. By some accounts, a million Mexicans died in the war, a million died of disease and starvation, and a million fled north to the United States. Eduvigues and Angelina – and other Mexican refugees — lived in box cars in the Rock Island Railroad’s yard in Silvis.
Although two of their sons died in combat fighting for the U.S. Army, Eduvigues and Angelina weren’t allowed to become Americans, and had to annually register as “aliens” until they died.
Georgia also kept extensive records of her brothers: Frank, who was machine-gunned to death in Burma, and Joseph, who was killed in combat Germany – one of the last men killed in the European conflict in World War II. Joe died the same day Franklin D. Roosevelt died, and two weeks before Hitler committed suicide in his Berlin bunker.
She carefully maintained the family archives that helped me and others memorialize Hero Street U.S.A.
But it’s not the records I most remember as I remember Georgia. What I most remember was a seemingly off-handed comment she made on a May day years ago.
We were walking Hero Street just before a Memorial Day ceremony. We walked past the Hero Street Memorial and reached the Hero Street Memorial Park where a general and other officials were preparing to speak to a sizeable crowd. There was a military honor guard ready to fire a 21-gun salute. A bugler prepared to play Taps. American flags surrounded us.
“Quite a day,” I told Georgia. “Lots of honors and pageantry. Lots to be proud of.”
She looked at me, shook her head, and said, “You need to remember: They didn’t want to be heroes.”
She paused before adding: “They wanted to come home to their family and friends, to their mothers and fathers, and in some cases their children. All this ceremony is fine but we didn’t want gold stars – we wanted Joe and Frank back home. We wanted all the boys to come home.”
Georgia was one of ten children born to Eduvigues and Angelina Sandoval.
All but one sibling – her older brother Tanilo – have died.
Tanilo lives in East Moline, just a couple of blocks of Hero Street. He’s in his mid-90s now. He has problems with his balance, and he’s nearly deaf. But his mind is sharp.
I called him to express condolences after Georgia died.
“We heard she had a heart attack and died quickly,” he told me.
“Now I am the last one.” The last child of Eduvigues and Angelina.
Of the people who knew the eight heroes as anything other than stone faces in a monument, only Tanilo and a few others still live.
When I think of Hero Street it won’t be the monument or the memorials that I most remember.
Instead, I will most remember Georgia’s words: “They didn’t want to be heroes…We wanted all the boys to come home.”
I’ll remember Georgia’s words, and when I walk Hero Street I’ll listen for the radio that I know won’t be playing.
Marc Wilson is the author of the book “Hero Street U.S.A.” which has won 3 awards at The International Book Latino Awards