Private France Silva (May 8, 1876 – April 10, 1951) born in Hayward, California, was the first United States Marine of Mexican-American and Hispanic heritage to receive the Medal of Honor. He received the Medal of Honor for his meritorious conduct in China during the Boxer Rebellion.
Medal of Honor action Silva joined the Marine Corps on September 12, 1899, in San Francisco and attended Boot Camp at the Mare Island Naval Shipyard. He was assigned to the U.S. flagship Newark where Private Daniel Joseph Daly (future double Medal of Honor recipient) was already a member. They became good friends. The Newark soon headed to the Philippines, to take part in the Spanish–American War, but were then sent to Japan to prepare for a landing at Taku, Tientsen and Peking. They arrived in Peking on May 31 before the Boxers closed the city off from the world.
In 1900, Private France Silva was a member of the Legation Guards (Marines) under the command of Captain Newt Hall, aboard the USS Newark. The USS Newark was a United States Navy protected cruiser, the first modern cruiser in the U.S. fleet. On May 20, 1900, the Newark sailed for China to help land allied troops to assist civilians within the legations which came under siege by the Boxers at Peking. Arriving Tientsin on May 22.
As Captains John T. Meyers and Newt H. Hall, USMC – under the command of Captain Bowman McCalla, USN – were in the lead position of the allies, the all European Brass Band played, There'll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight. They had their last really good meal for a couple of months but also immediately posted guard. Captain Meyers had given the command, “Fix, Bayonets!" just before their approach. They double timed the last three hundred yards and the crowd cheered.
Later, when they entered the Forbidden City of Peking, Edwin Conger, the lead U.S. Diplomat (and former Army officer) said to Meyers, “Thank God you are here. Now we are safe.”
On June 19, 1900, the 1st Regiment (Marines) under Major Littleton Waller, USMC, attempted to take the city of Tientsin and failed. Then on June 23, the Regiment, under the command of Major Waller, was able to enter Tientsin in their second attempt and force the Chinese forces to retreat to Peking. Private France Silva, several other Marines and two sailors, Navy Seamen Axel Westermark and Chief Machinist Emil Peterson earned the Medal of Honor in their defense of the civilian compound (legation) at Peking. They defended the walled city from June 28 until the fall of the city which occurred on August 17.
In accordance to a newspaper article:
“The USS Newark placed ashore a contingent
of Marine and three bluejackets as a
legation guard. These men and later another
detachment of Marines, soldiers and sailors
joined the troops of other western countries
and Japan in the defense of other Peking legations
against the Boxers until the arrival of the
Allied Forces in August.”
The USS Newark
According to the Journal of Pvt. Oscar J. Upham, USMC, (Upham called his journal the “Siege of Peking”) on July 1, “Pvt. Silva of the Newark Guard (detachment) volunteered to go and assist them (others on the Tartar Wall) and was hit in the arm making a very bad wound.” Several others had been seriously wounded and some killed during this skirmish. According to documents in the National Archives and Records Administration the bullet entered Pvt. Silva’s left elbow and bounced off his sternum. He was medically discharged on January 6, 1901 at Mare Island Naval Shipyard in Vallejo, CA. On December 31, 1901, he was awarded the Medal of Honor, also at Mare Island (Medal of Honor Society). The Medal of Honor Society stated recently (November 2008) that the Medal of Honor was mailed to him, but there is no official information about which official presented at Mare Island.
Captain Newt Hall, USMC, was Pvt. Silva’s Commanding Officer aboard the Newark. Hall retired as a Colonel and many years later (1930s) wrote an account of the Siege of Peking. Of all the Marines under his charge he noted that Silva’s was the “most interesting.” Even though Pvt. Silva was badly injured (he couldn't hold his rifle because his elbow had taken the bullet and it passed through his arm and bounced off his sternum), he and several other Marines attempted to return to the Wall for action. Captain Hall ordered them back to (Sick Bay).
Silva refused, telling the captain that if he would take Silva’s rifle and the captain give him his pistol, he said, “I can take of myself.” Silva remained on duty for at least a day relieving Marines and others on the Wall giving them a “much needed rest.”
Pvt. Silva’s immediate Commanding Officer was Capt. Newt Hall. Hall was under the command of Capt. John T. Myers. Myer’s and his detachment were on the USS Oregon (Upham Journal).
Medal of Honor citation
Private, U.S. Marine Corps
July 19, 1901
G.O. Navy Department, No.55
In the presence of the enemy during the action
at Peking, China, June 28, to August 17,
1900. Throughout this period, Silva distinguished
himself by meritorious conduct.
After the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, Silva reported that he lost all of his papers and his Medal of Honor, but another was mailed to him. He had filed a disability claim with the Department of Veterans Affairs. France Silva died on April 10, 1951 and is buried in Sunset Hill Cemetery in Corning, California. A model of the American Legation, previously on display at the Navy Yard in the early 1990s, was donated to the Marine Corps League, Detachment 1140, Tehama/Red Bluff (CA). This model of the American Legation was then donated to the Northern California Veterans Museum in Redding.