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World War II soldier is official nominee for state honor

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Posted: Monday, June 8, 2009 12:00 am

The medal came in the mail. The Distinguished Service Cross, the second-highest combat award for U.S. soldiers, arrived at Pedro Cano's house along with a letter from the Adjutant General's Office that detailed how the disabled veteran had destroyed seven machine gun positions and killed more than 30 Germans in two days of fighting.

Cano, described in local newspaper accounts as a "pint-sized Mexican-born war hero," couldn't read English well, so he carried the letter to the county's Red Cross office, wondering whether it needed an answer.

Cano's trip to see Hidalgo County Red Cross Secretary Camilla Bader on March 27, 1946, kicked off a chain of events that sent a nationally known general to the Rio Grande Valley and led thousands to gather on the courthouse square on "Pedro Cano Day" to watch the general pin the medal on the U.S. Army private.

Another medal for Cano - who died in a car crash six years after the April 26 celebration - likely won't cause the same kind of stir as in 1946, when half of Edinburg's residents came out to celebrate the city's "unsung war hero," a Mexican-born farm laborer who desperately wanted to become a U.S. citizen.

But if Gov. Rick Perry signs legislation authored by state Rep. Aaron Peña, D-Edinburg, Cano will join Vietnam war hero Sgt. Alfredo "Freddy" Gonzalez as the city's second recipient of the Texas Legislative Medal of Honor, the state's highest military award.

For Cano's three children, all of whom were younger than 10 when he died, the medal is leading to a new understanding of their family history this Memorial Day.

Their only accounts of their father and his war exploits came from whatever they gleaned from their mother before she died in 1975, said Dominga Perez, Cano's oldest daughter, who was 9 when he was killed in the head-on collision.

A handful of photographs of the celebration in his honor, decaying newspaper clippings and some letters are the only mementos she has from her father.

Perez, 66, only remembers bits and pieces of her father, but her most vivid memory is his death in 1952.

She remembers the day when the police officer told her family he had died in a car wreck, and she remembers the squad of soldiers who guarded his body while it lay in state at his house.

She remembers the American flag - the one the military draped over the jeep that carried him to the cemetery and that she still keeps next to his Distinguished Service Cross.

"(The funeral) is the one thing I can't forget," said Perez, who moved with her mother and siblings to Reedley, Calif., a few years after her father's death and hasn't been back to Texas since 1991. "It's still like it just happened."


Not much about Cano is revealed in a dozen local newspaper reports that detailed the events leading up to "Pedro Cano Day."

But this much is clear: He couldn't have been that tall.

Cano, who was born in Mexico in 1920 and moved to Texas when he was 2, was described as "pint-sized," "little," or "slightly-built" in the articles.

Gen. Jonathan Wainwright - the commander of Allied forces in the Philippines who pinned the Distinguished Service Cross on Cano - towered over him.

Fortunately for Cano, size wasn't a prerequisite for bravery.

His citation for the Distinguished Service Cross recounts two days of fighting in which his "daring actions without thought of his own safety permitted the advance of his company."

Cano was a member of a 4th Infantry Division company that was advancing near Schevenhutte, Germany, in December 1944 when it came under intense gunfire.

On several occasions, Cano risked his life by advancing under heavy fire to draw close enough to attack enemy emplacements. His exploits included crawling through a mined area at one point and on another occasion crossing the front to assist a nearby company.

Over a two-day period, Cano destroyed seven machine gun emplacements using his bazooka and hand grenades and killed an estimated 30 Germans.

After the first two days, an officer told Cano he would recommend him for the Silver Star.

But his exploits became more notable several days later, when Cano's platoon was ambushed by Germans, according to a 1946 article in the Edinburg Valley Review.

Cano, who was wounded in the exchange, lay on the ground until the Germans closed in. He then tossed out two grenades that killed several and scattered the rest.

With significant injuries that left him permanently disabled, Cano was sent to a veteran's hospital in Waco, where he stayed until his release in the spring of 1946.

He returned to the small house in Edinburg where his wife and daughter lived, preferring to leave his war experiences in Europe.

Then he got the medal in the mail and put it up in his closet.


By all accounts, Cano didn't want any attention.

Frequently described as modest and quiet, he preferred to get U.S. citizenship and a loan to buy 30 to 40 acres for his own farm.

But when Cano took the letter that accompanied the medal to the Red Cross secretary for translation, she recognized its importance.

Bader made a copy of the letter, which she took to the newspaper, where several veterans decided the Army had slighted Cano with what was reported as a "callous disregard for the properties connected with such an honor."

The newspaper and the American Legion sent off telegrams to the state's two U.S. senators and the Valley's U.S. representative to report what they termed a "slap in the face to Mexican citizens."

Arguing that an official military ceremony would be crucial to maintain good relations between border towns on both sides the international divide, the telegram requested a formal presentation of the medal to Cano. It also suggested his actions might have merited the Medal of Honor, the highest medal a member of the nation's armed forces can receive for valor in combat.

The telegram sparked a correspondence between the newspaper and the Valley's congressional leaders in which they decided Wainwright or another high-ranking military official would need to make the presentation because of the "apparent mistreatment of (the) Mexican citizen."

In the span of a telegram, Cano - who actually told the War Department he wanted the medal to be mailed rather than receiving it in a ceremony - was thrust into a story that got national attention and culminated when Wainwright agreed to present the medal to him.

By the time of the April 26 ceremony, a committee had organized a celebration in which Wainwright, flanked by high-ranking military and civil officials from the United States and Mexico, pinned the Distinguished Service Cross on Cano in front of thousands who watched from the courthouse lawn or leaned out nearby windows.

Wainwright, commander of the 5th U.S. Army, thanked the veteran for his service and later said Cano might have merited the Medal of Honor.

And at the end of the ceremony, Cano - never directly quoted in any story - was said to have briefly expressed his thanks.


Pedro Cano got his wish.

He inquired into U.S. citizenship while he was in Europe but was told by an officer that they were too busy fighting the Germans to fill out the paperwork.

But a month after Pedro Cano Day, Cano signed his name in the U.S. District Court office in Brownsville to become a naturalized citizen.

And sometime shortly after, he got his farm, too.

Cano, who received $150 each month for a disability suffered in the war, used a GI loan to get 40 acres, a truck and some farm equipment.

The one thing Cano never got was the medal some veterans felt he deserved.

Perhaps spurred by the apparent slight of receiving the Distinguished Service Cross in the mail, veterans believed that his citizenship or Hispanic heritage kept him from receiving the Medal of Honor.

However, 60 years after Pedro Cano Day, his military records were considered for possible upgrade to the Medal of Honor as part of a national review of Jewish and Hispanic recipients of the Distinguished Service Cross authorized by Congress.

A recommendation to upgrade Cano's medal was referred to a military awards board in June 2005, said Lt. Col. Richard McNorton, a public affairs officer for the U.S. Army. The board determined that the Distinguished Service Cross was the appropriate award for Cano's actions.

Still, Cano will be one of only six recipients of the Texas Legislative Medal of Honor if Perry signs Peña's bill.

Cano's story is an example of the immigrant's struggle to make it in the United States during the 1940s, Peña said. Despite the man's challenges, Cano distinguished himself in Europe, was heralded as a local hero at home and became a story worth telling over and over again.

"He's limited by stature, citizenship, discrimination and the limitation of knowing one language," Peña said. "Yet he's given a role to play, and he far surpasses 99 percent of people who fought in the war."


Her mother left her the medal.

Herminia Cano, who never remarried after Pedro Cano died, gave the Distinguished Service Cross that caused such a stir in 1946 to her oldest daughter, Dominga.

Other mementos - such as small black-and-white photos that show the parade and another that shows Cano waving to the crowd from the back of a convertible - are scattered at the homes of his two other children, Susano Cano, 59, and Maria Arias, 62.

The siblings have only been back to South Texas on a few occasions since they buried their mother not too far away from their father's gravesite at Hillcrest Memorial Park.

They remember when the city named Cano Street where the parade wound its way to the courthouse in his honor, and they are proud that the school district's Cano-Gonzalez Elementary School recognizes both him and fellow World War II Distinguished Service Cross recipient Julian Gonzalez.

The news that Cano might be recognized with the Texas Legislative Medal of Honor so long after his death comes as a surprise to his children.

"It feels good that people remember him," Maria Arias said. "It's keeping him alive."

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