In Silvis, Ill., Second Street — a block-and-a-half-long stretch home to a historically Hispanic-American community — has given the nation more than 100 servicemembers since World War II. No other street of comparable size has been home to so many members of the military, according to the Department of Defense, which is why, in 1968, it was renamed “Hero Street.”
From its humble beginnings as a railroad worker community, the street has grown into a nationally recognized testament of patriotism and selfless service.
The Rock Island Railroad Line owned a portion of land in Silvis during the Depression era and created a neighborhood of boxcar houses for its workers. Many Mexican families immigrated to Silvis to provide a better life for themselves and their children. Second Street was a dirt road, or a mud road, depending on the weather, nestled among steep hills.
“We moved here when I was two years old,” Mary Muños-Ramirez, who has lived on the street for 87 years, said, “and we used to live in a boxcar.” The Muños family fled Mexico in 1916 to escape the Mexican Revolution, settling in Silvis in the early 1920s. Ramirez recalled the neighborhood boys having crab-apple fights with children from other streets, and playing war games. The community was very close knit.
“When a woman would have a baby, all the women would bring food to that house,” Ramirez said. A seamstress that lived there would make clothes for other families and a carpenter would help with building projects. “(Families) couldn’t pay very much money, because no one had very much money, so they would just fix a big meal for the helper and give him some money and everybody was happy. They didn’t do it for the money, they did it to be neighborly,” she said.
All four of Ramirez’s brothers were in the military. “Mom was always, always so afraid about her sons being gone. You know, not at the same time, but it seemed like there was always somebody in the military, and it was just my sister and I with her.”
“We were afraid because so many of them were dying,” she explained.
Eight men from the founding generations of Hero Street lost their lives during World War II and the Korean War: Staff Sgt. Claro Soliz, Pfc. Frank Sandoval, Pfc. Joseph Gomez, Pfc. John Muños, Pfc. Joseph Sandoval, Pfc. Peter Masias, Sgt. Tony Pompa, and Pvt. William Sandoval. They are honored with special portraits on the Hero Street Monument, a stone tribute topped with a golden eagle carrying a flag and a rifle. The monument, located in the midst of a lush memorial park, was dedicated Oct. 6, 2007, and pays tribute to all veterans of military service.
The monument itself was the brainchild of Tony Soliz, president of the Hero Street Committee, and his family.
Tony enlisted in the Navy just before he could be drafted into the Army during the Korean War. He spent three tours of Korea aboard a ship before returning in March 1952 to marry his long-time girlfriend. All of his brothers also served, and Tony counts a total of 16 family members in the military, two of whom are currently deployed with the Air Force and Marine Corps.
Tony kept up regular correspondence with childhood friends Muños and Gomez after they were drafted. Gomez wrote Tony when he was first wounded in the shoulder. Gomez received treatment and was released shortly after. He wrote that every time he fired his weapon his shoulder would bleed because the stitches were still there, Tony said. Gomez was killed later in the Korean War and received a Purple Heart.
John Muños, Ramirez’s brother, was drafted into the Army in 1950 to fight in Korea and assigned to 38th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division. Muños didn’t like Korea at all and was very clear about his feelings, complaining to Tony that he’d been wearing the same pair of socks for 30 days, washing them out in a creek every morning.
Muños was killed in action about four months after he deployed, Tony said, but his body was not recovered. He also received a Purple Heart for his Korean War service.
The Soliz family also immigrated to America at the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution. They settled in Silvis and Claro was born in 1920. His nephew, Tony Soliz, explained that Claro lived at home with his mother and sister, Kate. When Kate’s husband was killed in a train accident, Claro helped raise her three girls.
“He helped raise them as much as he could until he went in the Army,” Tony said. Claro enlisted when he was 20 years old, and served with the 120th Infantry Regiment, 30th Infantry Division during World War II.
“My Uncle Claro went through about three engagements over there in Europe, (where) he was wounded. He was put in hospital there,” Tony said. Another Soldier from the Silvis community serving in Europe went to visit Claro at the hospital only to find out he had arrived too late — Claro had died from his wounds.
Because the road in the neighborhood was too muddy to travel via car, the local telegraph office would send a bike messenger to deliver the news to Second Street families each time a Soldier was killed or wounded.
“Every time we’d see this kid come on a bike, and this kid was looking for a house, the minute we saw that, we knew … .” Ramirez recalled.
Bringing the fallen home was often difficult for the small community.
When one of the Sandoval boys was brought home, the hearse couldn’t deliver the casket to the family home due to the impassable road, Ramirez said. Neighbors had to carry the coffin up the street and into the house themselves, where it lay in state for two days under constant guard. Afterward, it was taken to the church for a funeral service. Ramirez noted that the priest would hold a service, even if there was no casket.
“The worst thing was hearing the women cry, the mothers,” she said. “That was heartbreaking. Mrs. Sandoval, she lost two boys, she lived up the street from me and we could hear her all the way down the street crying.”
Despite the tragedies of losing family, friends and neighbors to war, the tradition of military service on Hero Street persisted, even for those who
moved away. John Soliz, Tony’s younger cousin, only lived on the street until he was about 10 years old, but later joined the Army.
John remembers the sense of community there, walking to church with his friends and playing on the street’s giant hill.
“Everybody knew just about everything about everybody, but not in a snoopy way, it was just a matter of fact,” he said. If someone was having trouble with something, neighbors would send family over to help. “We had our duties, not only to our own family, but to the street itself.”
John was in the Army from 1962-1966, and served in Germany with the 64th and 68th Armor Regiments, 3rd Infantry Division, as a tank crewmember. He and his crew were subject to constant border alert drills, often waking in the middle of the night to man the tanks and prove their training. They stood ready to defend any potential invasion from East Germany.
“We had a serious job to do, and we did it. Shortly after I was deployed, Vietnam started to come into play,” John said. Many of his childhood friends from Hero Street were drafted for Vietnam, but John was at the end of his service commitment and did not go.
John said the street always had a warm and comfortable feeling. Since he’s left, the streets have been paved, new houses have been erected and boxcar houses either replaced or renovated to the point of being unrecognizable. But Hero Street’s legacy lives on, even in the families that had to move away.
“I wish more people would get to know about Hero Street,” John said, “and get to see that there’s a lot of history on that street right there.”
For more information on Hero Street, its veterans and its monument, visit www.herostreetusa.org.