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Jose M. Lopez, 94; Battle of the Bulge Hero Killed 100 German Soldiers

May 18, 2005|Myrna Oliver | Times Staff Writer

Jose M. Lopez, the nation's oldest remaining Latino recipient of the Medal of Honor, who earned the award for single-handedly killing more than 100 German soldiers in a skirmish during the World War II Battle of the Bulge, has died. He was 94.

Lopez died Monday of cancer at the San Antonio home of his daughter, Maggie Wickwire. He had lived in San Antonio since 1973.

On Dec. 17, 1944, the 5-foot-5, 130-pound sergeant was on a snowy patch of ground near Krinkelt, Belgium, when he saw that German tanks and infantry were about to overrun his company.

He lugged his heavy Browning machine gun into a shallow hole and started firing, first killing 10 enemy soldiers and then another 25.

As the Germans kept coming, Lopez changed positions repeatedly, praying to the Virgin of Guadalupe that he be spared.

He stopped shooting only when he ran out of ammunition, and killed so many enemy soldiers that officials stopped counting after 100.

"Sgt. Lopez's gallantry and intrepidity, on seemingly suicidal missions in which he killed at least 100 of the enemy," his citation read when President Harry S. Truman presented him the Medal of Honor on June 18, 1945, "were almost solely responsible for allowing Company K to avoid being enveloped, to withdraw successfully and to give other forces coming up in support time to build a line which repelled the enemy drive."

Modest and self-effacing, Lopez told the San Antonio Express-News in 2001, "You learn to protect the line and do the best you can with the ammunition you have, and I did it."

More than a decade ago, the retired sergeant was one of 10 veterans who returned to their World War II battlefields with Bill Moyers to film the 1990 PBS documentary "From D-Day to the Rhine."

Although Lopez candidly discussed his battlefield terror in the documentary, he also told Moyers: "I believe any man would do the same thing."

At war's end, Lopez remained in the Army and went on to serve two combat tours in Korea. After his military career, he worked for the Veterans Administration.

Although military records list Lopez's official birthplace as Mission, Texas, he was born in the mountain village of Santiago Huitlan, Mexico. He acquired the Texas birthplace listing in 1935 when he bought a false birth certificate to join the Merchant Marine.

Orphaned at 8, Lopez lived with a teenage uncle in Mexico and at 13 hitchhiked to Brownsville, Texas, where another uncle lived. He spent several of his teen years picking cotton in the Rio Grande Valley and hopping freight trains to find work around the country.

The scrappy youth happened into a professional boxing career when a promoter saw him win a street brawl in Atlanta.

From 1927 to 1934 Lopez was a lightweight billed as Kid Mendoza, building a record of 52 wins and only three losses.

He retired from the ring after losing to British fighter Jacque Burgess in Melbourne, Australia, telling the San Antonio Express-News decades later, "I just didn't want to fight anymore."

The boxing career instilled in him a lifelong appreciation for fitness, and he continued to work out three times a week until a few months ago.

Lopez spent six years in the Merchant Marine, leaving Hawaii only three days before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

Returning to the mainland, he barely escaped arrest when California authorities mistook him for a Japanese man.

The following April, Lopez, then 31, enlisted in the Army at Fort Sam Houston, Texas.

The infantryman landed on Omaha Beach on the day after D-day and suffered a minor wound when a bullet grazed his side. He suffered severe hearing loss in his right ear at the Battle of the Bulge.

In addition to the Medal of Honor, Lopez received the Bronze Star and Purple Heart.

As a Medal of Honor winner, he attended the inaugurations of five presidents -- John F. Kennedy, Richard M. Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and, in January, George W. Bush.

Widowed in 2004 by the death of his wife of 62 years, Emilia, he is survived by his son, John, of San Antonio; four daughters -- Maggie Wickwire of San Antonio, Candida "Marie" Pierati of Mahopac, N.Y., Virginia Rogers of Ogden, Utah, and Beatrice Pedraza of Lima, Peru -- 19 grandchildren; and 10 great-grandchildren.

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