By Ernie Carrido
Jose M. Lopez is one of the 12 Latino World War II veterans to have received the Congressional Medal of Honor, the nation's highest military accolade. He had a difficult childhood, but maintained a fervent belief in the Virgen de Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico.
Lopez's father died in the Mexican Revolution; his mother eight, years later, when he was eight. Lopez never went to school, but worked in the cotton fields to help support himself.
As an infantry soldier, he prayed to his beloved Virgin, but he didn't pray to be a hero, he only wanted to return to his wife and their two children in Brownsville, Texas.
Lopez did return safely -- to a hero's welcome and met a succession of U.S. presidents, from Truman to George W. Bush. He was even feted in Mexico with that country's highest military honor.
"I prayed a lot to the Virgen de Guadalupe," recalled Lopez about his time in Belgium as a sergeant in the U.S. Army, Company K, 23rd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division. "And she allowed me to succeed and I finished with combat."
Lopez, who believes he survived the horrors of war thanks to the Virgin's blessings, sure enough packed his bags upon his return to Brownsville, and, along with his wife and two children, went on a pilgrimage to the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City.
The trip was fully funded by donations from the grateful residents of Brownsville, who threw Lopez a hero's welcome.
"I was glad that I returned to my family," he said. "My wife and I went to church to thank God that I returned and saw my children and wife."
But the valor Lopez demonstrated on a Belgium battlefield, where he carried out a seemingly suicidal mission, was more than a divine gift. It was a quality that flowed deep in his blood.
Born in Mission, Texas, in 1910, Lopez's father, Cayetano Lopez, and his mother, Candida Mendoza de Lopez, emigrated from a small village in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. His father worked on the cotton and beet fields of Mission while his mother took care of the newborn.
Lopez became an orphan when his mother died.
"I didn't know my father ... my mother died very young," he said.
Lopez grew up living with a maternal uncle, Constancio Mendoza, but he provided for himself by working on the cotton fields around Brownsville. He never had the chance to set foot in a classroom, something he regrets to this day.
As a young man, Lopez caught the attention of a boxing promoter, who noticed his physical abilities and mental agility. A seven-year career as a lightweight boxer then ensued, with him fighting a total of 55 matches, and winning all but three of them. Never in his defeats was Lopez knocked out nor did he hit the tarp.
While at a boxing match in Melbourne, Australia, in 1934, he met a group of men who worked for the Merchant Marine, and was convinced to sign a work contract with it. He was accepted into the union in 1936 and spent the next five years traveling the world and visiting far-off places such as New Zealand, Australia, Figi and Tahiti.
For a time, Lopez resided in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, where he would break concrete with a steel gun for a living. He lived there for about five months but eventually decided to return to the mainland United States.
It was en route to California when he learned about the Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which led the U.S. into WWII. Lopez says the attack happened three days into his voyage back home.
"When I arrived in Los Angeles, I disembarked, and shortly afterward, they arrested me because they thought I was Japanese," he said. "I let them see my papers, that I was Mexican, and they let me go. They were going to put me in the prison [interment camps] for the Japanese."
Lopez then returned to Brownsville in 1942 to marry Emilia Herrera, with whom he’d eventually have four daughters: Candida, Virginia, Maggie and Beatrice, and one stepson, Juanito, from his wife's first marriage.
But later on that year, he received a draft card and went to San Antonio to enlist in the U.S. Army. Lopez was sent first to Fort Sam Houston in Texas and then to Camp Roberts in California to receive his basic training.
Although he volunteered to serve in the Airborne Unit, he wasn’t accepted because the Army wanted young, single men to serve in that dangerous unit. Instead, he was assigned to Company K of the 23d Infantry Regiment, 2d Infantry Division.
Lopez was then sent to Northern Ireland to receive military training for a top-secret mission that would pave the way for the Allied Forces’ invasion of Nazi-controlled Europe, the June 6, 1944, assault on Omaha Beach.
Lopez's regiment landed at Normandy on June 7, D-Day plus 1.
"We fought very hard against the enemy," Lopez said. "We lost many of my friends."
Lopez's ultimate test of valor, however, came on Dec. 17, 1944, near Krinkelt, Belgium, when he took it upon himself to carry his machine gun from Company K's right flank to its left to protect it from the advancing German infantry.
"Germans started to arrive and attacked an American tank," Lopez recalled. "I climbed up and asked if anyone was alive ..."
There was no answer.
Lopez then occupied a waist-deep fox hole and shot 10 Germans. He stayed there, despite heavy enemy fire, and shot 25 more Germans, according to an account from the Congressional Medal of Honor Society, which maintains a Web site.
"Everyone was afraid of where I put them to fight the Germans," said Lopez, recalling that one solider even wanted to surrender. "I told them that they had to stop and fight back."
Lopez realized his position would be outflanked so he carried his machine gun to a new position, reset the weapon and continued to fire. He single-handedly held off the Germans until he was satisfied that his company had completely gotten away and was no longer compromised.
Lopez's efforts ultimately allowed the Americans to create a line of defense to fight back enemy fire. He possibly killed at least 100 Germans and secured the position of Company K, meriting him the U.S.’ highest award for military valor, the Congressional Medal of Honor.
After being presented the medal in Nuremberg, Germany, he returned to the U.S. He received an enthusiastic reception when his ship landed in New York City, and was even greeted by legendary New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia.
"Oh boy, they gave me a welcome!" Lopez said. "I met the mayor, the Italian guy [LaGuardia]."
Lopez was also greeted in Mexico City during his pilgrimage to the Basilica. He was welcomed by President Avila Camacho and was also awarded Mexico's highest military commemoration, la Condecoracion del Merito Militar.
When he came back from the war, he was unable to get a good job in Brownsville, so he moved to San Antonio and worked as a contact representative with the Veterans Administration. A few years later, he volunteered to serve in Korea, this time retrieving fallen soldiers' bodies. But somehow word got to then-President Harry S. Truman, who ordered him returned home.
"Bingo," Lopez said his captain said. "Sergeant Lopez, we're sending you back to the U.S."
Lopez now advises his grandchildren to get an education, which he considers the most important thing to do in life.
"It's the most one can leave to one's grandchildren: education," he said, boasting about the success of his grandchildrens' college educations and careers as doctors, magazine representatives and even imported cigar merchants. "They must learn so that they can live in this life."
At the time of his interview, Lopez lived in San Antonio with his wife, Emilia, at the home of his daughter, Maggie Wickwire.
Mr. Lopez was interviewed in San Antonio, Texas, on October 6, 2001, by Manuel Medrano.