National Hispanic Heritage Month: Frank Sandoval, US Army Combat Engineer

Frank Sandoval, whose U.S. Army service during World War II included taking part in one of the most critical and formidable roadbuilding projects of that military conflict, grew up in a predominantly Hispanic American community on Second Street in the small town of Silvis, Illinois. That street is just a block-and-a-half long and consists of only 25 homes, but it has achieved a major record: more than 100 individuals living on the street have served in the U.S. armed forces. This is a higher number than any other street of comparable size in the United States. Through his distinguished, if ill-fated tour duty in World War II, Sandoval helped lead the way for all of those other local residents who have served in uniform.

Sandoval’s parents were born in Mexico. They fled to the United States in 1917 during the Mexican Revolution. Along with several other Mexican families who likewise fled the turmoil engulfing their homeland at the time, Edubigis and Angelina Sandoval made Silvis their new home. Their son Frank was born there in 1920.

Frank Sandoval cut short his education during his third year of high school to work on a full-time basis. By the time he was inducted into the Army in October 1942, Sandoval was employed at that military branch’s Rock Island Arsenal on present-day Arsenal Island (in the vicinity of Silvis). In September 1943, he began active service in Southeast Asia as a member of Company C of the 209th Combat Engineering Battalion. Sandoval was not the only member of his family to serve in the military during World War II. His brother Joe served as a member of the Army’s 41st Armored Infantry Division in Africa, the Middle East, and Europe.

Frank Sandoval and the others in his battalion were assigned the Herculean task of building an overland connection known as the Ledo Road to allow the Allies to deliver urgently needed supplies to China and better combat the Japanese forces in that theater of the war. The Ledo Road ultimately encompassed 1,072 miles (1,726 kilometers) altogether within India, Burma (now called Myanmar), and China. Construction on this route, which began in the town of Ledo in northeastern India and had its endpoint in the city of Kunming in southwestern China, was initiated after the Japanese cut off the flow of Allied supplies on the Burma Road in the region.

Along with providing an alternate means for the Allies to transport military equipment and other resources to help in the fight against the Japanese, the Ledo Road made it possible to deliver huge quantities of critically needed food. “China was starving,” wrote Marc Wilson in a 2004 column about Sandoval in the Iowa-based Quad-City Times. “Frank Sandoval and his buddies in the U.S. Army 209th Combat Engineers were sent halfway around the world – from Illinois to California to New York to Rio, around the Cape of Good Hope and across the Pacific to India – to help build a road through the jungle from India through Burma to China in hopes of feeding a starving nation.”

In constructing the road to serve as a lifeline for those priorities, Sandoval and the others had to contend with more than just the ever-present threat of Japanese attacks during the eight-hour shifts each day. These roadbuilders also had to hack their way through jungles thick with leeches, snakes, and tigers; painstakingly navigate steep and jagged terrain in the Himalayan region; and struggle with constructing bridges across rivers that rose as high as 45 feet (13.7 meters) in monsoon season. As one of the chief engineers for this ambitious road project, Colonel Lewis A. Pick called it “the toughest job ever given to U.S. Army Engineers in wartime.”

Charles Monroe, who worked alongside Sandoval in helping to build the Ledo Road, later recalled the challenges in “making it wider and putting in drain lines (culverts), which was very hard work, also widening the sharp turns.” Monroe also noted, “Many of us had our first experience in operating heavy equipment, bulldozers, road graders, rock crushers and heavy dump trucks.” The New York Times reported that those working on the Ledo Road eventually moved enough soil “to build a solid dirt wall three feet [0.9 meters] wide and ten feet [3.1 meters] from New York to San Francisco.”

Sandoval did not survive his time in Southeast Asia. He died in June 1944 after he and others in his battalion had set aside their roadbuilding duties to help defend an airbase in northern Burma that was under Japanese attack. Sandoval was killed by the enemy along the banks of the Irrawaddy River. He was only 23. A military chaplain subsequently wrote in a letter to Edubigis and Angelina Sandoval, “Frank was killed in action and suffered no agony, as he was killed by enemy gunfire in an attack.” The chaplain also noted, “Please do not picture the worst, for he went quickly, perhaps not knowing it.”

Frank Sandoval’s brother Joe likewise did not make it back home alive; he was killed in action in Germany in April 1945. The bodies of both brothers were eventually brought back to Illinois, and they are each now buried in Rock Island National Cemetery. In 1967, Second Street in Silvis was officially renamed Hero Street U.S.A. as a tribute to those who had both lived on that street and served in the U.S. military in times of war. Hero Street Park USA was dedicated in Silvis about four years later to specifically honor the Sandoval brothers and several other Hispanic American servicemen from that street who made the ultimate sacrifice.

Additional information on Frank Sandoval and the other servicemen of Hero Street U.S.A. is available at https://www.msc.navy.mil/sealift/2004/September/perspective.htm.

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