Local hero no longer forgotten
Pvt. Silva of Hayward believed to be the first Hispanic recipient of the Medal of Honor
By Matt O'Brien, STAFF WRITER
Article Last Updated: 03/26/2007 06:39:58 AM PDT
HAYWARD Under constant bombardment by well-equipped rebel snipers, Pvt. France Silva of Hayward sprinted through a hail of gunfire in a move his fellow Marines later described as heroic.
A bullet struck the 25-year-old soldier's left elbow, pierced his arm and bounced into his sternum.
For his actions on July 1, 1900, as part of an international fight to put down the Boxer Rebellion in China, Silva was awarded the prestigious National Medal of Honor and accepted a medical discharge several months later.
But he fell into obscurity soon after returning to California, and eventually the Boxer Rebellion became little more than a footnote in the popular history of American foreign policy.
It wasn't until retired Marine Sgt. John Minton recently began researching Silva that anyone in modern Hayward had heard of him.
"Nobody has a picture of him. There are no stories anywhere," said Minton, who has been trying to track down Silva's descendants. "Nobody even knows where that Medal of Honor is at."
Minton, a 54-year-old Red Bluff resident who was discharged from the service on medical disability in 1984, said he has become so obsessed with the story of Silva and his contingent that he plans to write a book about all he has learned.
"They saved a lot of human life doing what they did," Minton said. "They were outnumbered about 10-to-1 by the Chinese, and they fought them off and they won. It's a heroic story, and why it never got told, I don't know."
Silva was born on May 8, 1876, in the tiny farm and resort town then called Haywards. Local officials didn't drop the "s" until 1894.
He was believed to be of Portuguese descent, which would not be surprising, considering the area's history. Hayward historical records tell of Azorean immigrants some with the popular name Silva who arrived in the East Bay as far back as the 1850s and 1860s. Some bought large tracts of rural land from pioneer landholder Don Guillermo Castro.
Silva died on April 10, 1951, and was buried in the Sunset Hill Cemetery in Corning a Tehama County town about 20 miles south of Red Bluff.
To fill in the blanks of Silva's history, Minton had to start from scratch, culling archives and obscure records from a variety of government sources.
About a week ago, Minton found documents indicating Silva had been divorced and remarried in Sonoma County. He's still waiting on a pension file from the National Archives. Silva has been called the first Hispanic person to get a Medal of Honor, although the U.S. Census Bureau does not consider Portuguese to be Hispanic.
"I'm telling the story to the Marine Corps that they don't even know," Minton said.
He wants to call his book "Myers' Almost Forgotten Marines" after John Twiggs Myers, the commander of the Marine guard that fought against the Chinese nationalists.
The uprising began after the Boxers, a movement of anti-colonialist Chinese fighters who called themselves The Righteous and Harmonious Society, began attacking Christian missionaries and other foreigners in the country.
The unrest escalated over a period of months, and the Boxers built connections within the imperial Chinese government. In June 1900, they attacked foreign embassy compounds then known as legations in Tianjin and the capital, Beijing.
In an effort to secure the legations, the United States, Japan and six European nations sent troops into China.
Silva, who was attached to the USS Newark, was one of the first of a few dozen officers and men to land near the mouth of the Hai River.
Minton turned up an account by one of Silva's compatriots, Pvt. Oscar Upham of Oklahoma, who kept a log of everything that happened after the Marines left port in Japan in late May, anticipating the problems that were to come.
"We soon afterward left Nagasaki far behind, and proceeded on one of the most exciting ventures ever known in the annals of history," Upham wrote.
The small contingent of Marines led by Myers trekked into Beijing in June and found themselves under siege, waiting weeks for reinforcements, Minton said.
They occupied the so-called Tartar Wall, which was constantly being bombarded by artillery fire. It was there, according to Upham's journal, that Silva was shot.
That day, a nearby contingent of German troops had been driven from the wall. Myers wanted to regain the barricade they had retreated from, but troops were being wounded and killed by skilled Chinese snipers.
Upham wrote that Silva "volunteered" to leave his post and go ahead to help out.
"France Silva basically said, 'I'm going to volunteer,'" Minton said. That's when he was shot.
After the rebellion was quelled in 1901, the conflict took on somewhat mythological proportions over the next decades, with various parties giving their own interpretation of what had transpired.
The only major Hollywood movie about the incident, "55 Days at Peking," was a 1963 action-adventure vehicle for Charlton Heston and Ava Gardner and depicted the Chinese in the prevailing Western mood at the time.
And while considered murderous cultists by Westerners, the Boxers were later glorified as patriots by the Communist Party in China.
No matter how one interprets the conflict, Minton said, it's hard not to recognize pure heroism in action.
Silva was discharged Jan. 6, 1901, and awarded his Medal of Honor on Dec. 31, 1901, at Mare Island Naval Base near Vallejo.
Minton has petitioned for Silva to be recognized in the places where he lived. In advance of March 25, which was National Medal of Honor Day, the chairman of the Tehama County Board of Supervisors agreed Tuesday to make an announcement recognizing Silva for his service.
Matt O'Brien can be reached at (510) 293-2473 or email@example.com.