Carlos Harrison first heard the words “Hero Street” when he worked at People en Español. An editor asked if he’d heard of the place and said off-handedly, “We should do a story on it someday.”
The story — about a dusty block and a half in Silvis, Illinois, from which 22 Mexican families sent 57 of their children off to fight in World War II and Korea — never got written for People en Español. But the idea of immigrants who were shunned by their country despite volunteering to serve it stayed with Harrison, a former Miami Herald reporter. When he finally started researching the subject — he learned eight of the soldiers had been killed in the wars — he found little record of it.
“I was fascinated by everything I read,” he says, adding that he realized this was part of a bigger story about the battle for civil rights in the United States. “It’s every immigrant’s story.”
The result is The Ghosts of Hero Street: How One Small Mexican-American Community Gave So Much in World War II and Korea (Berkley, $26.95), about which Harrison will talk Friday at Books & Books in Coral Gables. He tracked down survivors and pored over military records. Families who had kept letters and photos and keepsakes shared them willingly. He learned two of the men who died were paratroopers; another fought in the Battle of the Bulge. Another died building the Burma Road, another on the beach at Anzio.
The Ghosts of Hero Street was recently named by the Los Angeles Times as one of the top 25 essential books for Memorial Day, on the list at No. 6, two slots ahead of Catch-22.
The ranking makes Harrison laugh. Hero Street is a great story, he says, but “I don’t think I should be ranked ahead of Joseph Heller!”
Have you always been interested in military history?
I had read Hiroshima, Catch-22. I’ve read a lot of fiction and nonfiction, but I wasn’t necessarily someone attracted to the story of soldiers or military history. I’m attracted to a great story that reveals something about people and about the way people treat each other, the things people will do, both good and bad. I felt like this just went beyond the activity of fighting. It said something about all of us as a nation and a people and as human beings.
What was living on Hero Street like?
The people had been invited here by the railroads; they fled the Mexican revolution and got to the border and got 10 bucks and a ride to where the work was. They were forced to live in railroad box cars without electricity. They carved this place out of the woods. They weren’t allowed to live near the whites in town, so they were given the box cars by the railway company. They had to put two of them together to make a church. People who grew up there remember snow swirling through the cracks in the wall. They told me, “If you had to go to the outhouse you made sure you went before you went to bed — it was so cold.”
What was it like for the survivors to return home after their service?
When the survivors came home, they went to the local VFW and had a couple of beers, and said, “Hey, we’re veterans, can we join?” and the guy there said, “No, you’re Mexican.” They saw the civil rights movement occurring. They came home from the war and said, “We bled side by side on the battlefields.” But they weren’t allowed to be buried in many white cemeteries. They were allowed to fight in white units but not allowed to speak Spanish. ... So much of our history was shaped by World War II. It changed us into a superpower, changed history for the world. And these guys coming home had their own piece of the civil rights battle to fight. They expected to be treated fairly. And there are more stories like that out there, with every immigrant group that came here. Now it’s playing out in Afghanistan and Iran.
What was the hardest thing about researching the book?
It took five years to write it. Reaching people who knew the soldiers was hard. We’re losing our veterans from World War II. ... I was working on the book for two years when I found one of the men I was looking for. He lived in Hollywood, Florida! I picked up the phone and called him, and his daughter answered the phone and said, “Oh, no, he died two months ago.” A pilot and a bombardier told me great stories in such detail it made me question whether I would have the courage to do what they did. ... But they didn’t survive to see the book printed.
What do you take away from working on this book?
My father had the same position on a B-17 bomber — tailgunner — as one of the guys from Hero Street. As I learned about it, it helped me appreciate what that generation was called upon to do. The wife of the bombardier on that plane said he had nightmares the rest of his life of trying to save this other man on the plane. He would wake up screaming trying to pull out this guy who was stuck in the bomb turret but couldn’t get him out before the plane exploded. ... In the last chapter, she said, “They called it a great war. It wasn’t. There is no such thing. You have to tell this story so they’ll never do it again.”
Connie Ogle is the Miami Herald’s book editor.