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Hero Street

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

In 1927, Juan Pompa and his wife, Jesus Maria, and their three children moved to Silvis, Illinois, just upstream from here. Juan joined a large population of Mexicans brought here by the Rock Island Lines during World War I to work in the world's largest railroad repair shop.

Many of the Mexican families lived on Rock Island Lines property in abandoned box cars. The Pompas moved into one of these with two other families. A year later, after residents of Silvis complained that the Mexicans paid no city taxes, the Rock Island Lines shut down their box car village.

Ironically, prejudice kept them from finding regular housing. The Pompa family, and twenty-one others, eventually settled in the only available place, on Second Street: an unpaved two-blocks no one else wanted at the west edge of town. Here, the Pompa children grew up playing games on Billy Goat Hill overlooking the street.

When World War II began, Juan and Jesus' oldest son, Tony, was fired from his job at the Rock Island Arsenal because he was not a United States Citizen. Hoping to become one by serving in the armed forces, he falsified his name, enlisted in the Army Air Corps, and became a tail gunner on a B-24 Liberator named "Sinner's Dream."

On January 31, 1944, the bomber was hit by enemy fire over northern Italy, and Tony went down with the plane. Tony was the first of six young Mexicans from Second Street to die in the war. Two others died in the Korean conflict. Slowly, at first by word of mouth, then by general agreement, and finally by decree of the Silvis City Council, Second Street became known as Hero Street USA. Billy Goat Hill became a monument to all the young men and women from the twenty-two families of Second Street who have served in the armed forces—defending a country which would not let them live where they wanted, which forced them to sleep in their cars because motels and hotels would not accept them, and whose restaurants would serve them food, but ask them to eat it outside.

One of the few options open to the young Mexican men and women of Second Street was "hero."

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.