By Ronnie Zamora
Joe Lopez can recall a time when serving in the military was the furthest thing from his mind. The idea of firing a rifle at an enemy was only a part of the childhood games he used to play with his brothers.
Lopez never imagined he’d find himself in Italy, engaged in a life-and-death firefight against German troops in a skirmish that would eventually earn him a Bronze Star for his heroism on the battlefield.
"Me and my brothers used to play cowboys and Indians, but we never thought about the military," Lopez said.
Lopez earned the medal along with two other soldiers.
"We were away from the company and we [encountered] a company of Germans coming at us. They started firing at us, and we had to get in a ditch," Lopez recalled.
As the fighting broke out, he says three GIs, joined by Italians, took up the fight alongside the Americans.
"When they [the Germans] started firing at us, these Italians ... helped us out," he said. "We started charging them and we captured the whole company of Germans."
In retrospect, Lopez looks on his military exploits with pride.
"I went through it, and I'm glad I did. I became a man," Lopez said. "I don't regret it because I think I learned a lot from it, and we came back, all of my brothers and myself. There's nothing to regret. I'm sorry for the guys who didn't come back."
When he was drafted into the Army in 1942, Lopez had no idea where the experience was going to take him.
"When I found out, I said, 'Hey, I live in this country; I've got to go to war.' I had no objections to it," Lopez said.
His path to the battlefields of Italy was a difficult one, but Lopez had already experienced hardship growing up on the barrio streets of East Los Angeles.
Born May 3, 1921, into a family of six, Lopez grew up in Boyle Heights, a neighborhood in East Los Angeles. He remembers being so poor that he used cardboard as inserts in his shoes because his family couldn't afford anything else. He peddled newspapers to help the family with money.
After his junior year in high school, Lopez left to join the Civilian Conservation Corps, a federal program devised to provide jobs for young Americans. He says he harbored aspirations of being a park ranger during his time with the CCC.
"I had a great time. I used to drive the log truck, hauling logs," Lopez said. "I was going to ranger school. I wanted to be a ranger, but then war broke out and that's when everything changed."
He met his wife, Dolores, in 1939 in East Los Angeles. They were married Nov. 1, 1941, only a month before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and WWII broke out. He was drafted shortly after getting married. He went through basic training in Oregon, and then was sent to North Africa for his first tour of duty with the 91st Division of the 362nd Regiment.
From North Africa, Lopez was transferred to the front lines of Italy, where he spent two years in combat. While with his company, he says his unit received orders from the U.S. Office of Strategic Services to track down Italian Prime Minister Benito Mussolini.
"We had orders to get to Mussolini before [he was] killed. We were in contact with the OSS, but when we got there, Mussolini was hanging ...," Lopez said.
He feels fortunate he survived the war.
"I never got wounded, I was lucky," Lopez said. "I lost a lot of friends. It was hard, because they were close to you. We were together from the States and all the way through."
After getting discharged in September of 1945, Lopez worked as an electrical plater, then as a truck driver for 25 years, until his retirement in 1980. He and Dolores have two children, five grandchildren and 4 great-grandchildren.
Lopez is part of a group of veterans in his East L.A. community that gets together once a month for breakfast to share experiences.
"We have a club. We go down to a Catholic church and we have breakfast there once a month," Lopez said. "We have a heck of a time."
Mr. Lopez was interviewed in Whittier, California, on May 13, 2003, by Steven Rosales.