The invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944, began the final Allied forces’ push across Europe to destroy the Nazi regime and end the war in Europe.
That battle alone led to 13 Americans ultimately receiving the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest tribute to bravery in the face of the enemy.
Army paratrooper Private Joe Gandara of Santa Monica, then a 20-year-old Mexican American, stands as the lone Californian among them. His name today graces the Medal of Honor Wall at the California Department of Veterans Affairs headquarters in Sacramento.
Gandara joined the Army at 18 in February 1943, turning 20 less than two months before the invasion. Serving in the 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment, he parachuted into France on D-Day, touching down east of the amphibious landings at Omaha and Utah beaches.
Three days later in Amfreville, on June 9, 1944, his unit came under extreme fire from the Germans that lasted more than four hours. Gandara’s Medal of Honor citation reads:
“Private Gandara voluntarily advanced alone toward the enemy position. Firing his machinegun from his hip as he moved forward, he destroyed three hostile machineguns before he was fatally wounded. Private Gandara’s extraordinary heroism and selflessness at the cost of his own life, above and beyond the call of duty, are in keeping with the highest traditions of military service and reflect great credit upon himself, his unit and the United States Army.”
However, 70 years passed before Gandara received his true and due recognition. The Defense Authorization Act of 2002 mandated a review of Jewish and Hispanic American veterans from World War II, the Korean and Vietnam wars, many of whom received Distinguished Service Crosses instead of Medals of Honor due to prejudice.
Count Gandara’s among the 24 medals upgraded during a ceremony at the White House in 2014, where President Obama presented the medals to three surviving veterans, and to the families of those – including Gandara – who either perished in battle or otherwise died in the interim. Gandara’s niece, Miriam Adams, accepted the medal on his behalf.
Gandara also received the Bronze Star, Purple Heart, Army Good Conduct Medal, European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with one Bronze Service Star and Bronze Arrowhead Device, Presidential Unit Citation, French Fourragere, Combat Infantryman Badge, and Parachutist Badge-Basic with one Bronze Service Star.
He is buried at the Woodlawn Cemetery in Los Angeles.