Carlos Harrison first heard the words “Hero Street” when he worked at People en Espanol. 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 Espanol. 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), which was recently named by the Los Angeles Times as one of the top 25 essential books for Memorial Day.
Q. Have you always been interested in military history?
A. 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.
Q. What was it like for the survivors to return home after their service?
A. 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.
Q. What was the hardest thing about researching the book?
A. It took five years to write it. Reaching people who knew the soldiers was hard. We’re losing our veterans from World War II. … 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.
Q. What do you take away from working on this book?
A. My father had the same position on a B-17 bomber – tail gunner – 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. … In the last chapter, (the wife of the bombardier) 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.”