— 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
story — about a dusty block and a half in Silvis,
Ill., 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.
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."
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). 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.
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
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
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, Fla.! 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."