Horizon, Host: Ted Simons

May 26, 2008


Host: Ted Simons

Memorial Day Special

  |   Video
  • In honor of Memorial Day we profile Arizona heroes: Sylvestre Herrera, Medal of Honor recipient, and Frank Luke, Jr., the namesake of Luke Air Force Base. Also, stories from World War II


View Transcript
>>>Ted Simons:
Tonight on "Horizon" we remember a Medal of Honor recipient who ran over a mine field to protect his platoon. An Arizona pilot whose name is remembered beyond the west valley and veterans remember the horrors of the Second World War. That's next on the special edition of Horizon. Good evening, and thanks for joining us tonight on this special Memorial Day edition of Horizon, I'm Ted Simons. Medal of Honor recipient Sylvester Herrera passed away in Glendale last November. He was born in Mexico but brought to the United States as an infant. He was the first resident of Arizona to receive the Medal of Honor during World War II. Here's a story "Horizon" we did on Herrera a few years ago.

>>Choir:
Oh, beautiful for spacious skies for amber waves of grain for purple mountains majesty above the fruited plain

>>Mike Sauceda:
It was not even really his war, but Sylvester Herrera of Glendale didn't find that out until he was 27. That's when his father told him he was really his Uncle, and that Herrera was not a United States citizen. In fact, he was born in Mexico, had been brought to El Paso as a baby when his parents died and moved to Tolleson when he was 12. His Uncle told Herrera his Mexican citizenship meant he didn't have to go to war after being drafted. But Herrera had a family and it was their country.

>>Sylvestre Herrera:
That was the hardest part for me, leaving my family here.

>>Mike Sauceda:
And this was the country he loved. So in January of 1944, Herrera was drafted into the army, spent time in boot camp and on furlough, and spent seven months on the front lines fighting Nazis in Europe and Africa in the army's 36th infantry division. On March 15th, 1945, Herrera's odyssey as a war hero was sealed. Herrera was fighting near the French town of Mertzwiller.

>>Sylvestre Herrera:
We were ordered advance. For me, I was a first scout; I was about a quarter of a mile ahead of everybody. My second scout and I, we were always in the front. We were advancing and stopped by artillery, we all took cover.

>>Mike Sauceda:
With his m1 rifle, similar to this one, and a hand grenade, Herrera took out a Nazi machine gun nest. Then he went where only angels and war heroes dared tread, into a land mine field surrounding a second machine gun nest. His foot found one land mine; another blew in step with the first. Both his feet were gone.

>>Sylvestre Herrera:
I kept on fighting them. I think I shot about three guys from that machine gun, because I know because they all went this way. I must have hit them right in the center. And one, I hit him in the shoulder. So after that, I almost passed out, and that's when my squad finish up.

>>Mike Sauceda:
But Herrera never passed out. What kept him going?

>>Sylvestre Herrera:
Love, love of country, love of fellow men.

>>Mike Sauceda:
He was saved by this medic. When medical personnel treated him, they pried this rock from his clenched first. He later made it into a necklace. Herrera had other exploits before he was injured like this tank he took out with a rifle grenade launcher. The tank spun round and round because only one track was intact. On August 23rd, 1945, while on furlough back in Phoenix, he received this telegram informing him he was going to be awarded the country's greatest military decoration, the Congressional Medal of Honor. He traveled to Washington where President Harry Truman placed it around his neck. A day where 28 veterans were honored.

>>Sylvestre Herrera:
I didn't expect anything. But yeah, I'm proud of it, but I don't go out say, hey, I got the Medal of Honor.

>>Mike Sauceda:
Herrera says Truman is his favorite president.

>>Sylvestre Herrera:
He didn't take anything from nobody. That reminded me of myself.

>>Mike Sauceda:
Herrera's no-bull attitude got him in trouble a few times, but it's an attitude that makes war heroes.

>>Sylvestre Herrera:
I made sergeant three times, and I was busted three times, for fighting an officer. He gave us an order, and I lost most of my squad. So I went over there and got even with him.

>>Mike Sauceda:
Herrera says his Mexican heritage may also have helped him in battle. His great uncle fought alongside Pancho Villa. After he received his award, an Herrera Day was declared in Arizona, and he was given a parade.

>>Sylvestre Herrera:
I was all scared; I didn't know what to do.

>>Mike Sauceda:
Arizona residents raised $14,000 so Herrera could buy a home. He bought two and a half acres and had this home built on the land. Herrera is a hero in the classical sense, but he has mixed feelings on how he got his medal.

>>Sylvestre Herrera:
It's not too far to remember, that you had to kill people to be where you are. But we really had no choice. They were shooting at us, and we had to fight back.

>>Mike Sauceda:
Herrera is the only man in history to have both the Congressional Medal of Honor and the Mexican equivalent. Although born in Mexico, he received his citizenship during the war. Herrera says awards won by him and other Hispanics help Latinos.

>>Sylvestre Herrera:
Yeah, it did, uh-huh. Yeah, we got up a little notch, a little higher.

>>Mike Sauceda:
After the war Herrera went to school on the GI. Bill and became a leather tooler. He also learned silver smithing on his own and made his living with both trades. Herrera's sippy room, a term for a military command room, is where he keeps his medals and other memorabilia. The room reflects his heroic nature, as well as the life he settled into after the war. He has five kids, 11 grandkids, three great-grandchildren. His wife Ramona died in 1978. Although the world paints him as a hero, Herrera doesn't feel he is one.

>>Sylvestre Herrera:
No, I don't. It doesn't bother me one way or the other. I don't like to act big, because that would belittle me.

>>Ted Simons:
Luke Air Force Base is named in honor of Frank Luke Jr. He was born in the Arizona territory and died in combat. He was awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor.

>>Paul Atkinson:
Few 21-year-olds have statues erected in their honor. Fewer still are the number of young men who accomplished what Frank Luke Jr., did. He was America's top ace at the time of his death, having shot down at least 18 enemy airplanes and balloons in World War I.

>>Bill Luke Jr.:
He was given a job and he did it. He was a daredevil, he was.

>>Paul Atkinson:
Bill Luke Jr., never knew his uncle, but learned plenty about him from family members.

>>Bill Luke Jr.:
When he was in high school he had the brainy idea that he'd like to use an umbrella and jump off the auditorium of Phoenix Union High School. His principal said, why don't we try this first with a dummy. He did that, and found that there was a lot of damage. So he decided that wasn't a good idea.

>>Paul Atkinson:
Before Luke joined the army in 1917, he worked the mines in Aho.

>>Bill Luke Jr.:
There was a prize fighter that came through the mining camp. He decided that he'd challenge the guy, and he won.

>>Paul Atkinson:
Luke was sent to France in the spring of 1918. He reported to the front a couple of months later.

>>Mel Derry:
The major told Lieutenant Luke when he first checked him out and everything in combat, if you last two weeks; you may be assured of having it made, being able to survive. And two or three weeks was considered normal life expectancy for pilots that flew these airplanes.

>>Mel Derry:
All these aircraft over there are fabric covered, bed sheet, same thing we sleep in every night.

>>Paul Atkinson:
The museum has a replica of Luke's airplane, a French-built aircraft. Luke preferred to go after the most dangerous of all targets, observation balloons.

>> Mel Derry:
It wasn't uncommon, if you went down around a balloon trying to shoot it down, you'd end up being shot down yourself. Just from the people on the ground, and that was the reason most people avoided it.

>>Paul Atkinson:
Luke's passion for downing balloons earned him the nickname the Arizona balloon-buster.

>>He was the most daring aviator, the greatest fighter pilot of the entire war. His life was one of the brightest glories of our air service He went on an eight-day rampage and shot down 14 enemy aircraft, including 10 balloons. Captain Eddie Rickenbacker.

>>Paul Atkinson:
After his two closest friends The Arizonans began going it alone and was grounded by his commander.

>> Mel Derry:
On the way back he shot a balloon down, came in and landed. His base commander says, put yourself under house arrest; you're going to be court- marshaled. So that really upset him so he got out left a note and said; watch the three bags on the river.

>>The Arizona balloon-buster He found more than a half dozen Germans fighting waiting. Nearby French residents claim he Luke downed two German planes but were never confirmed. He went on to shoot down all three enemy balloons. But Luke would not return to base to face the consequences of defying orders. He had been hit by anti-aircraft fire.

>>Mel Derry:
Luke saw the congregation of German soldiers and went down and strafed them, and supposedly killed maybe six of them, and then went around and landed adjacent to the village. That's when the Germans approached the airplane, expecting to capture him. And he wasn't there.

>>Paul Atkinson:
No one knows for sure what happened next. Historians believe Luke got out of his airplane, but died from his wounds before Germans could kill him. Luke's death made the headlines back home. His brief life gone, but not forgotten.

>>Bill Luke Jr.:
I think he was an extraordinary boy, who met an extraordinary challenge. And he did the best he could.

>>Paul Atkinson:
An air force base is named in Luke's honor, a reminder of his success and sacrifice.

>>Bill Luke, Jr.:
Men and women have served as peacekeepers, and a lot of them have lost their lives. Frank lost his life, he was a symbol. They were symbols. They were heroes. And they're my heroes.

>>Paul Atkinson:
Luke is buried in a military cemetery in France. His simple cross does not boast of his accomplishments. Those speak for themselves.

>>Ted Simons:
Horizon teamed with the Arizona heritage project to record the experiences of veterans of the Second World War. In our first segment, Harold Berbower describes his experience as a prisoner of the Japanese.

>>Harold Berbower:
December 8th, 1941, at about 10 minutes to 1:00, they said the Japan planes are here. I went outside going to my duty station. I stopped to look up, and there they were. And as I looked down, saw the first bombs land on Clark field. Then when I come to, I was in the morgue at Fort Stassen burg. There were 40, maybe 30 people on the floor, and I was one of them. I crawled out and went back to my squadron and they fixed me up. I made three missions with a Martin B-10. Then we had no more aircraft. So I joined up with the 26th Calvary Filipino Scouts on horseback for two and a half months, I fought with them. Food was so scarce that they ate the horses and the mules and everything else on Bataan. Bataan is a peninsula about 40 miles long and maybe 20 miles wide. You put 100,000 people in there, and no supplies coming in, you're not going to last very long. The Japanese didn't defeat us. Malaria and dysentery really took the biggest toll. Rations were down to about a fourth what they should have been. So General King decided that we couldn't go any longer. We had one more day of supplies left, and that was it. So he surrendered to the people on Bataan. Before that went through, I got three Filipino scouts and we took an outrigger from Bataan down to the southern island of the Philippines. I joined my outfit on the river; they were the second line of defense. And I was on patrol duty when they surrendered, when General Wainwright surrendered all of the islands. I went into a Japanese patrol and they captured me. On Bataan they surrendered in April. The rest of the islands, the 6th of May. I was on patrol duty, and I didn't know anything about it until I ran into this Japanese patrol, and they captured me and wanted to know why I was still fighting. I said, well, we're at war. He says, you've surrendered. All of your people in the Filipinos have been surrendered. I said, well, that's news to me. So that's when they sent me back to the first prison camp.

>>Larry Lemmons:
They spoke English?

>>Harold Berbower:
This guy, yeah, he was educated in the States, he was a major in the Japanese army. I don't recall his name. We called him handlebar hank because he had a big old black mustache. He treated me real good till we got back into the prison camp. But the penal colony was probably the best camp that I was in.

>>Larry Lemmons:
You mean, so far as it wasn't as brutal as some of the others?

>>Harold Berbower:
That's right, and I was there until August of 1944. Then they were going to ship me to Japan for -- to be -- to work in the factories there. The ship that I was on was torpedoed by an American submarine. It limped into Manila. I was in a prison there for a while. I was on another ship that went to Japan. We called those ships hell ships. The reason for that, they packed you in there so close, so tight, that you couldn't sit down. People would die, and they would still be standing up. At O'Donnell they have planted 31,000 trees, one tree for each guy that died at O'Donnell. That's American and Filipino. In about the first 40 days, I guess, they died. To see people get their arms and legs broken, and guys being beheaded just for no reason whatsoever, so just if you looked wrong at one of the guards, he could bayonet you or shoot you. If I had one word to describe my experiences, I'd have to use the word hell, but that doesn't even begin to describe it.

>>Ted Simons:
In this next sesgment, Jack Nemerov describes his experiences after landing and fighting on Omaha beach. His company worked its way into Germany and came upon the concentration camp at Dachau.

>>Jack Nemerov:
You have to keep in mind by the time we were getting closer to Germany, we were hardened fighters, and my young men were the best fighters in the world. We kind of became inured to what we saw on the battlefields. You do it, or break up, one or the other. But when we entered Dachau, we were completely horror-stricken at what we saw. We're human beings. Yes, we're fighters; we're there to fight a war. But that was more than we could digest, what we saw there. When we entered Dachau, and they were still some German guards there. They weren't armed, I don't know what they did with them, but they were still there. We saw these poor emaciated human beings, Dachau only held male prisoners. The women and children were about a mile from there. We saw these walking scarecrows, skin and bones, that's all they were. And the older of the camp, horrendous, just horrendous. Heinrich Himmler had issued orders that all prisoners were supposed to be killed. Most camps commanders did not obey those orders because they knew well, what's the difference Another week, two weeks, a month? The war's over. They threw the gates open and said go. The prisoners of war didn't go anyplace because they figured, what's the use? Our own forces will be here sooner or later, where are we going to go? The poor devils in these butchery camps were too weak to go anyplace. When we came in, the commander of Dachau was obeying the orders; he had bodies all over the place, recently shot. The poor devils that were still alive seemed to have a compulsion that if they kept moving, they would stay alive. Barely able to stand on their feet, and they walked around the corpses on the ground. When we came in, they gave us kind of a strange look, because they were used to the idea of men coming in wearing different colored uniforms, coming in, shooting some of them, and then leave. The Nazis had developed killing squads. Some wore black uniforms, some wore green uniform, some wore brown uniforms, and we came in wearing khaki. They figured, another killing squad, another uniform. They just kept moving around. I walked up to a couple of them moving around and stopped him like this. I spoke to them in Jewish, and said, I'm Jewish. We're Americans. They all started to gather around us. Apparently they didn't believe that we were real. Because they reached out to feel the fabric of our union forms. When they found out the fabric was real, they grabbed us by our arms and wouldn't let go. They just hung on. They cried. We did, too. I must admit that. And then as tough as our young men were, they were still big-hearted Americans. They reached into their camp and took out the canned food that they had and handed to some of these poor walking scarecrows and that was a serious mistake. A couple of these poor walking scarecrows took the food out and gulped it right down and dropped dead in front of us. I mean, this was an experience -- we could have killed everybody in sight, that's how we felt. Two of my young men went absolutely wild. They just went out of their mind. They went after the guards standing in the back, the German guards, with the rifles. They didn't shoot them but they were starting to hit them with the butt of their rifle. They had some of them on the ground hitting them with the butt of their rifles. I knew I had to stop it. There are always people that go by the book. If some top brass walked in, those two young men could have got five years in prison for what they were doing. I started to wrestle them back towards the gate. As I was pulling them out, They handed their rifles to a couple of these poor walking scarecrows, and these two devils tried to finish off the guards on the ground, but they were too weak to do any real damage. So then I took the people that I brought in with me, I took a few truckloads of workers from the BMW plant in with me. And the reason why I did that, they said they didn't know. So then I took them toward the back of the camp, and there was a big wooden shed back there. And that was locked, so we broke the lock and got in. And the shed was back by the crematorium. When we got into the shed, we saw there were bags and bags and bags of lime and all kinds of tools in there. So I had some of the people that didn't know dig a ditch back by the crematorium. And take some of the bodies that were decomposing and put them in the ditch and cover them with lime and cover them up with dirt. Then I had them make a marker, 500 poor unknown souls buried here. There was just no way we could identify them. They were decomposing; we had to get them buried. We were there in Dachau about four hours doing that. Some major walked in and bellowed at me, get out. So I took my guys and left. Later it turned out that he was from the 43rd infantry division, and the 43rd, the general of the 43rd had some newspapermen with him, and writing up the story of the 43rd. And the general wanted the credit for liberating Dachau. So we had to get out. They did write the story, and I found the story. They had liberated Dachau on May 2nd, 1945. We were there May 1st.

>>Ted Simons:
That concludes this special Memorial Day edition of Horizon. I'm Ted Simons. Good night.

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