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A belated honor at the White House for a long-ago soldier

  • McClatchy Washington Bureau
  • Published Tuesday, March 18, 2014, at 6:16 p.m.
  • Updated Tuesday, March 18, 2014, at 7:06 p.m.

— Reedley, Calif., resident Dominga Cano Perez touched a bit of her father Tuesday, when President Barack Obama pressed the framed, encased Medal of Honor into her hands.

He’d been gone so long.

Dominga was just 9 when her father, Pedro Cano, died in a car crash. That was 1952. She was only 1 when he was fighting in the dreadful slog of the Hurtgen Forest. That was 1944.

Now Dominga is 70, a grandmother and a widow, who on Tuesday was entrusted by the nation’s commander in chief with the military’s most esteemed keepsake. Through a White House ceremony that was years in the making, the daughter felt the weight of what her dad once did.

“This is the single largest group of service members to be awarded the Medal of Honor since the Second World War,” Obama said, adding that “their courage almost defies imagination.”

The Medal of Honor commemorating the late Army Pvt. Pedro Cano’s World War II heroism was one of 24 presented Tuesday in the East Room of the White House. Three of the recipients are still living, veterans of the Vietnam War.

The other 21 medals, including Cano’s, were presented posthumously, with loved ones standing in for the soldiers.

“It was beautiful,” Dominga’s son _ and Pedro’s grandson _ Armando said after the ceremony. “It was amazing.”

All of the medals arrived decades late, well beyond the Army’s usual three-year limit. The special consideration followed a 2002 congressional order, included in that year’s defense authorization bill, to re-examine decorations that may have been improperly withheld from Jewish or Hispanic soldiers. The review subsequently expanded to cover other soldiers, as well.

“This is long overdue,” Obama said. “Some of these soldiers fought and died for a country that did not always see them as equal.”

In each case, the Army examined records of those who had received the Distinguished Service Cross, the military’s second-highest medal. That’s what Pedro Cano originally received, in the mail and remarkably without ceremony. The Army later made amends with a 1946 formal presentation.

“It’s exciting to know he’s finally getting recognized after all these years,” Dominga said. “I was nine years old when he died, so there is not much I can say about him personally, much less about the war.”

Dominga and family members first met in the Oval Office, alone with Obama.

During the 75-minute public ceremony, Dominga was then called forward Tuesday to stand to Obama’s right on a small stage, while her father’s citation was read and a Marine Corps lieutenant colonel, resplendant in gold braid, held up the framed medal. Dominga linked arms with Obama while the citation was read; afterward, they hugged.

She seemed perfectly composed; she did not cry.

“We were very surprised and proud of her,” Armando said.

Following the ceremony, she and the sons, daughters, nieces, nephews and widows of other medal recipients joined in a White House reception. From start to finish, and even before it began, the award ceremony was a family affair.

From Los Angeles, where he’s president of the Costume Designers Guild, Dominga’s, son Salvador Perez, had arrived. Her sons Robert and Armando Perez and grandson Armando Perez, Jr., a Reedley High School student, joined her. Hanford-based consultant Stephen Cano, a second cousin of Pedro’s who has extensively researched his war record, also came.

The ceremony Tuesday, in turn, capped an extraordinary family journey that really began last fall, when the White House first informed the Perez family of the award. It was a fortunate turn for Dominga, depressed after her husband Salvador passed away last year.

“The planning for this has taken her out of that,” her son Salvador said.

The planning, moreover, has been extensive. On Monday morning, Pentagon officials offered Dominga and other family members lessons in how to handle the media. The briefing was followed by interviews and further lessons about the medal itself, the nation’s highest award for military valor.

“We learned how you aren’t allowed to trade it, barter it or sell it,” Salvador said.

Monday night, the Defense Department hosted a reception for recipients and family members at the Sheraton Pentagon City Hotel, near both the Pentagon and Arlington National Cemetery. During down time, family members could meet others and swap stories about a man that most had never met.

“He was very quiet, very nice; family oriented,” Armando Perez said, recalling how Dominga has spoken of her father. “He wanted to make sure the family was taken care of.”

Pedro Cano was born in La Morita, Mexico, June 19, 1920 and was brought to the United States when he was two months old. He joined the U.S. Army in 1944, and was assigned to the 4th Infantry Division.

From D-Day onward, the 4th Infantry Division’s soldiers endured nearly a year of combat. By war’s end, the division had lost 4,097 men killed in action, while another 17,371 were wounded in action.

Many of the casualties came in Germany’s Hurtgen Forest, the site of a fierce battle near the Belgium border. Cano was advancing with Company C, 8th Infantry Regiment, near Schevenhütte, Ger., on Dec. 2, 1944, when they were halted by intense enemy machine-gun fire. The Army summary picks up what happened next as Cano, who, all of 5 feet and 3 inches tall, rose to the occasion.

He crawled through a heavily-mined area, under fire, until he could fire a rocket into the position, killing the two gunners and five riflemen. He fired into a second position, killing two more gunners, and with hand grenades killed several more.

When an adjacent company encountered heavy fire, Cano crept to within 15 yards of the nearest enemy emplacement, and killed the two machine-gunners with a rocket. With another round he killed two more gunners and destroyed a second gun. The next day, Cano destroyed three enemy machine-guns in succession.

“They say he killed about 30 enemies in about two days,” Dominga said. “He had to defend himself.”

Cano sustained serious injuries in the fight. He was returned to the states and placed in a Veterans hospital in Waco, Texas, before finally reuniting with his wife and Dominga in tiny Edinburg, Texas. In 1946, he became a naturalized U.S. citizen.

He died in a head-on collision six years later, after which the family moved to California’s San Joaquin Valley.

“Pedro was just an ordinary man,” his second cousin, Stephen Cano, said, “but he was thrust into an extraordinary world war.”

Email: mdoyle@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @MichaelDoyle10.

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