By Marc Wilson
When I called my friend Tanilo Sandoval to offer my condolences on the death of his younger sister, Georgia, he said, “I’m the last one now.”
Tanilo at 95 is almost completely deaf, so I couldn’t ask him what exactly he meant.
Was my friend talking about the Greatest Generation – the Americans who survived the Great Depression and World War II? Tanilo is of that generation and he served in the U.S. Army, but — though the numbers are quickly thinning – he certainly isn’t the last of the Greatest Generation.
Was he referring to being the last one alive who personally knew the eight men immortalized at Hero Street U.S.A.? Tanilo is surely one of only a handful of people still alive who knew the heroes – including two of his brothers, Joe and Frank. Sadly, the ranks of the old-timers have thinned. But I know there are still a few others alive who knew at least one of the heroes.
So I decided that he meant he’s the last of the children of Eduvigues and Angelina Sandoval, who fled Mexico in 1917 to find safe harbor from the Mexican Revolution.
The last of a great, scarred family whose members included two of the eight heroes memorialized on Hero Street U.S.A.
Before Tanilo’s parent fled from the state of Guanajuato, Mexico, in 1917 they buried their daughter Mercedes near their home on a hacienda near the small, war-ravished town of Romita.
Then, with little more than the clothes on their backs, they began their flight to the United States along what is commonly known as the Devil’s Highway – so-called because many in Mexico believe the Devil lives in the North.
Somewhere along the Devil’s Highway, their baby son Pedro, died. His may be one of the grave markers that line the Devil’s Highway. Or he may be among the unmarked dead.
After reaching the U.S. border at Laredo, Eduvigues was hired by the Rock Island Railroad, which was recruiting workers because the United States had sent so many men to fight in World War I. Eduvigues and scores of other Mexican men went to work in their 900-acre rail yard in Silvis, Illinois not distant from the eastern shore of the Mississippi River.
Silvis’ citizens wouldn’t let the Mexican refugees live in town. So the railroad provided housing in the railyard – wheel-less boxcars. The railroad painted the boxcars red in hopes of cheering the depressed refugees.
In that boxcar, on March 9, 1919, Angelina gave birth to Joseph Sandoval, the first of 10 children born to the couple in the United States. A second son, Frank, was born in the Sandoval boxcar on September 5, 1920.
Those two boys — Joseph and Frank — are two of the eight men honored as killed-in-combat heroes on Hero Street U.S.A, the street with the most combat deaths of any street in America.
Angelina and Eduvigues would have eight more children, including Tanilo, who was born in the family boxcar in 1926.
In 1929, on the eve of the Great Depression, city leaders, unhappy that the refugees didn’t pay property taxes, forced the Mexicans to move from their boxcars to 2nd and 3rd streets in Silvis – the recently abandoned city dump.
Some families dragged their boxcars from the railyard, others built ramshackle homes on what would become Hero Street U.S.A. Some of the original boxcars are part of the homes on Hero Street today.
The move from the railyard occurred on the eve of the Great Depression in 1929, which was the beginning of major financial woes for the Mexicans’ employer, the Rock Island Railroad. Many lost their jobs, but Eduvigues Sandoval was fortunate, and kept his.
Eduvigues earned 35 cents an hour doing some of the dirtiest jobs in the railyard. In the late fall of 1932, he handed his oldest son, 13- year-old Joseph – who spoke English — much of the family’s savings and told him to travel across the Mississippi River to Davenport to buy winter coats for the family.
Tanilo, aged 6, would go with his older brother to help carry the precious coats back to Silvis.
The brothers left their house at 187 2nd Street, walked down to First Avenue and waited for the streetcar. The streetcar took along, what was then U.S. Highway 6, some 12 miles through East Moline and Moline to the county seat of Rock Island. Joseph and Tanilo then jumped off the streetcar and walked a short distance to the Illinois side of the Government Bridge, a two-tiered 1,500-foot drawbridge that spans the Mississippi River.
The two boys crossed the great river and entered Davenport, Iowa, whose 60,000 people made it the largest city between Chicago and Des Moines. At the intersection of 2nd and Main, they entered a five-story red brick department store. They carefully examined their options, discussed who would wear what coats, and bought coats that would stay in the family for years.
Carrying their precious coats, they backtracked their route across the Mississippi, and returned home safely, and the coats were worn by family members throughout the Great Depression.
During the Depression, Eduvigues and Angelina fed not only their large family, but helped feed hungry neighbors and hungry hobos. “Mom understood hunger, and Dad knew how lucky he was to have work,” Tanilo once told me.
Then came World War II.
In 1942, Tanilo’s brother Frank – who was working as a janitor at the Rock Island Arsenal – was drafted into the U.S. Army and assigned to the Engineer Corps. His unit crossed the Pacific Ocean, crossed through India and was sent to Burma to help build the Ledo Road so supplies could be sent to China. Cutting a road through the dense jungle was termed the “toughest engineering project on earth.”
The Japanese controlled all Chinese ports, and fiercely fought to block construction of the Ledo Road. Desperately short of manpower, Gen. Joe Stillwell, commander of U.S. forces in Burma, ordered two units of engineers – including Frank’s – to reinforce the allied airfield at Myitkyina, which was under heavy Japanese attack.
On June 26, 1944, Japanese soldiers crossed the monsoon-swollen Irrawaddy River. The engineers, poorly trained for combat, were cut to pieces.
“Frank was killed in action and suffered no agony, as he was killed by gunfire,” the unit’s chaplain wrote to his parents in Silvis.
Just six weeks before Frank died, his older brother, Joe, was drafted. Joe was married and the father of two sons, so had earlier received draft deferments. In July 1944, his unit was shipped to England as part of the 2nd Armored Division.
On August 24, 1944 – unaware that his younger brother had been killed – he wrote Frank a letter: “Dear Frank…take care of yourself.”
In April 1945, Joe’s unit advanced to the western bank of the Elbe River in Germany. The Allies had agreed to partition Germany, with the Soviet Union to control the land east of the Elbe, so Joe’s unit was told to stop advancing at the river’s edge.
The soldiers were told the war was, in effect, over. They celebrated with cheers, hugs, guns firing in the air. A cache of wine and liquor was found, lubricating the celebration.
But the war wasn’t over for them.
The next day, the hung-over Americans were ordered to cross the river, and when they did they were met by German tanks and infantrymen. Losses were heavy – six killed, 23 wounded and 147 missing. Joe was counted among the missing. A year later, the Army found and identified Joe’s body.
In December 1948, the army shipped Joseph Sandoval’s body home. Rain and snow disrupted his return. The city of Silvis still hadn’t paved 2nd Street – it was the only unpaved street in Silvis — and the street was too muddy for the hearse to drive to the Sandoval home. Friends carried the coffin all the way up the street from 1st Avenue to his house at 187 2nd Street, where his mother and father and brothers and sisters awaited him.
Neighbors lined the street. A single soldier followed the pallbearers. At the front door, they were met by Angelina and Eduvigues. ‘It was a very sad scene,’ Tanilo Sandoval remembered. ‘Mom never got over the pain.’”
More than 70 years later, Beth Sandoval Lambert wrote: “I remember when visiting my great grandma Angelina she would sit in her chair while rocking. She would cry every time she saw my dad Henry because he looked so much like his father, Joe.”
A friend once told me he could never visit Hero Street without hearing the wails of Angelina Sandoval. What sadness she and her husband knew – outliving at least six of their children.
Their two sons killed in combat in World War II were buried side-by at the Rock Island National Cemetery.
For years, Eduvigues, Angelina and Tanilo decorated Joe’s and Frank’s graves – and the graves of the other Hero Street soldiers – at the military cemetery each Memorial Day.
After Eduvigues died on Veterans Day 1967 at age 81, Tanilo and his mother continued bringing flowers to the cemetery.
After Angelina died in 1984, the task of decorating the graves fell to Tanilo.
He took me with him on one Memorial Day.
The cemetery is massive with some 26,000 graves or memorials, and could be overwhelming – but my guide knew where the bodies were buried.
Tanilo took me to his brothers’ graves, and to the graves and memorial markers of the other six Hero Street soldiers killed in combat. He took me to the graves of the two Medal of Honor winners buried at the cemetery.
He knew everyone’s story. He brought them all flowers.
Tanilo also started the tradition of placing hundreds of tiny American flags around the Hero Street monument in Silvis.
Tanilo worried and wondered who would decorate the monument and who would bring flowers to the graves once he was gone.
That’s a real concern. Because he is truly the “last one.” The last one who remembers so much of a great story that shouldn’t be forgotten.
Marc Wilson is the author of the book “Hero Street U.S.A.” which has won 3 awards at The International Book Latino Awards