José M. López was one of nearly a half-million Latinos who served in the armed forces during World War II and one of thirteen to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor. Historian Manuel F. Medrano's recent book The Life and Times of Sergeant José M. López: Mexican by Birth, American by Valor focuses on López's life—from immigrating to the Rio Grande Valley during childhood to singlehandedly preventing hundreds of German soldiers and a Tiger Tank from attacking his company—while examining the impact of World War II on Latinos in the United States during the postwar period. In honor of Veterans Day, we are pleased to share this short essay by Medrano based on excerpts from The Life and Times of Sergeant José M. López.
His nickname was Pepe, and Sergeant José Mendoza López was an authentic hero, a person who risked his life for his country. He is the most decorated Latino in American military history. José and other Latinos like him, men and women, came to the aid of the United States during World War II. Their courage on the battlefield and work ethic in the factories changed how they were viewed and how they viewed themselves. During the process, they became witnesses to their own history.
Don José was one of the inspiring interviewees for the Los del Valle Oral History Project that began in 1991 at The University of Texas at Brownsville. What this Congressional Medal of Honor recipient endured on and off the battlefield was painful yet transforming. Hearing him tell his story provided me with an insight into the Latino soldier war experience that remains under-documented.
López was born on July 10, 1910, in Santiago Huitlan, Plumas, Oaxaca, Mexico, a few months before the onset of the Mexican Revolution. His father, Cayetano, died during the Revolution. His mother, Candida, died when José was eight. At thirteen, he immigrated six hundred miles alone to escape the violence and to find work in "el norte," which he did as a fieldworker in the Rio Grande Valley.
During the 1920s, he lived with his uncle Constancio and picked cotton and vegetables near Brownsville. Sometimes, he barely had enough to eat. During the Great Depression, he travelled to Atlanta, Georgia, by freight car. While there, José, who only weighed 130 pounds, beat a much larger man in a street fight. A boxing promoter witnessed it. He needed a lightweight boxer, and José needed a job. López fought fifty-five fights, lost only two, and was never knocked down. His last fight was in Melbourne, Australia, against Jackie Burgess, the champion of England. After the fight, he moved to the West Coast and joined the Merchant Marines. With them, he sailed around the world twice and increased his knowledge of and respect for the world and its people.
Throughout his life, José took one risk after another, with the cojones (courage) to do it. On a stop in Acapulco, Mexico, he visited La Quebrada (the Break), the 135-foot, world-famous diving cliffs. He liked watching the professional divers dive from a small platform into a small inlet below. Their timing of the dive and the depth of the water had to be near perfect because the consequences for error were immediate. José climbed and dived from the cliffs three consecutive times.
He was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1942 using a fake birth certificate from Mission, Texas. There, he was assigned as a machine gunner for Company K, 23rd Infantry Regiment. He served in Europe and was at Normandy on June 7, 1944, one day after the D-Day invasion. He remembered, "Peleamos muy fuerte; perdimos muchos amigos. Antes de la batalla, sacerdotes rezaban por nostros. Muchos de mis soldados projimos, los mataron. Veiamos caras nuevas cada dia." (We fought hard, and we lost many friends. Before the battle, priests would come to pray for us. Many of my fellow soldiers were killed. We would see new faces every day). Included in his other engagements were the Battle for Brest and the bloody defeat at St. Vith near the Siegfred Line. Along the way, he received a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart.
For López, it was his undaunted action on December 17, 1944, near Krinkelt, Belguim, during the Battle of the Bulge, that earned him the Congressional Medal of Honor. The official Army citation describes his action as one of the most selfless acts in military history. It reads, "On his own initiative, he carried his heavy machine gun from Company K's right flank to its left in order to protect that flank, which was in danger of being overrun by advancing enemy infantry supported by tanks (one was a German Tiger tank). Occupying a shallow hole, offering no protection above his waist, he cut down a group of ten Germans. . . . Sgt. López's gallantry and intrepidity, on seemingly suicidal missions in which he killed at least one hundred of the enemy, were almost solely responsible for allowing Company K to avoid being enveloped." Mendoza also served during the Korean War and continued to serve his country until the early 1970s.
José M. López was not perfect; none of us are. However, all of the persons I interviewed—including family, friends, and retired military—applauded him as a family man and a soldier. He passed away on May 16, 2005, and was buried at Fort Sam Houston Veteran's National Cemetery in San Antonio, next to Emilia, his wife of sixty years. I had the privilege of speaking at the church service three days later. In the center pew in front of me were five Medal of Honor recipients, sitting shoulder-to-shoulder.
Pepe easily met the criteria of hero for his family, community, and country. José was not only a member of the Greatest Generation; he was one of its finest examples. Those privileged enough to know him understand. His presence was unforgettable, his character inspiring. Meeting him was like meeting a gallant knight from medieval times: modest, fearless, noble, and ready to do battle for his king and country. Until the end, José remained who he had always been—a virtuous man, an honorable man, a valiant man—un hombre valiente.
Manuel F. Medrano is a professor emeritus in history at The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley and specializes in Mexican American history and culture. He is a former Humanities Texas board member and has authored several publications about people and events related to the Rio Grande Valley. In 1991, he launched the Los del Valle Oral History Project with the goal of collecting and preserving historical memories in the Rio Grande Valley, a region that has been historically underrepresented in archival and published research. Medrano's most recent book, The Life and Times of Sergeant José M. López: Mexican by Birth, American by Valor, was published in November 2022.