SANTA MONICA, Calif. -- The city of Santa Monica and the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (LA Metro) honored Pvt. Joe Gandara, a Soldier killed in WWII and Medal of Honor recipient, Nov. 4 by unveiling a plaque commemorating his sacrifice at the 26th street/Bergamot Station.
Santa Monica Mayor Tony Vazquez, LA Metro Chief Executive Officer Phillip Washington, living members of Gandara's family, Army Soldiers, and other community leaders attended the ceremony and assisted in the unveiling. A Los Angeles Army Reserve unit, the 311th Expeditionary Sustainment Command provided a color guard for the ceremony and Capt. Christopher Montes of the Los Angeles Recruiting Battalion spoke during the event.
Previously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his acts of heroism, in 2014 President Barak Obama upgraded Gandara's award to the Medal of Honor. Gandara was one of 24 war Veterans of Hispanic and Jewish heritage whose records were reviewed by Congress according to the 2002 National Defense Authorization Act, and were found to have performed actions of gallantry and heroism above and beyond the call of duty.
Members of this group, known as Valor 24, were all Army Veterans and ethnic minorities.
According to the medal citation, on June 9, 1944, in Amfreville, France, 20-year-old Gandara and had been pinned down under heavy German fire for four hours. He and the men of the 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment were in France as part of the major Allied D-Day offensive, which had kicked off three days earlier.
During that firefight, with no regard for his personal safety, Gandara rushed toward enemy positions, firing his machine gun as he ran. He single-handedly destroyed three hostile machine gun positions before being fatally wounded.
"Today our military is different than it was in 1944 when Pvt. Gandara was killed in action," said Montes during his speech. "He would have been awarded the Medal of Honor when he died, if not for the color of his skin."
Advocates for the Valor 24 project maintain that Gandara and fellow Veterans were passed over for the Medal of Honor originally due to their ethnic heritage.
"I was honored to be with my mother at the White House to witness how a nation acknowledged the mistakes of the past, a nation that did not always appreciate the sacrifice of Americans of Mexican descent," explained Hannah Adams, Gandara's great-niece. "Finally, our nation set the record straight. Gladly, we stand here today, a free and stronger nation because of our diversity."
As Gandara grew up in the Pico neighborhood on 25th street, Gandara's living family members found the 26th street/Bergamot train station, which re-opened in May 2016, a fitting location for a memorial to the Santa Monican.
Adams, who represented the family during the event and spoke at the ceremony, said she grew up hearing stories about how much her great-uncle was missed.
"I'm in as much awe as you," said Adams after pulling down a cloth covering, revealing the plaque. "This isn't about me, it's about him. This is someone who knew for sure that he was going to die and decided to take as many hostile people with him … to get the maximum out of what was happening."
Santa Monica Mayor Tony Vazquez, who advocated for the plaque's placement, said the plaque was just a small token of the city's appreciation, and that it was a shame the recognition wasn't given sooner.
"As the mayor--a Mexican-born mayor--of the city of Santa Monica, it's an honor to [recognize] Pvt. Joe Gandara," Vazquez said.
Washington, also a retired Army command sergeant major, said he respects the tremendous sacrifice made by Gandara's family.
"I think about the very moment that Gandara decided to make that sacrifice … he probably did not think twice about [it]," said Washington. "He did what he had to do."
The fact that servicemembers are willing to give their lives in defense for their country is something the entire nation should recognize, Washington said.
Montes explained that every generation has its heroes, and Gandara was certainly a hero of his time.
"This dedication ceremony should not only be a time for remembrance, but also a time for celebration," said Montes. "We must celebrate him because he was a hero, in a time that the world needed heroes."
While Washington said he'd recall Gandara's sacrifice every time he passes the station, Adams reminded the audience that all citizens have the potential for heroism.
"May the dedication of this station serve as a reminder to us all that even from humble beginnings, we are all capable of valor," Adams said.