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Posted: Sunday, May 25, 2008 12:00 am

Sgt. Jose Lopez stood only 5-feet-4 and weighed 135 pounds. But on Dec. 17, 1944, during the Battle of the Bulge, he was a giant of a man for Company K.

In what was called a "seemingly suicidal" mission, Lopez killed at least 100 Germans while enduring Tiger tank cannon fire and almost singlehandedly kept his company from being overrun during the early stages of the surprise winter counteroffensive.

A few months later, Army Third Corps Commander Maj. Gen. James A. Van Fleet awarded Lopez the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest award for heroism on the battlefield.

Lopez died May 16, 2005, at 94 from cancer at his daughter's home in San Antonio.

He was given a hero's burial at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery, a ceremony reserved only for Medal of Honor recipients and general officers. Gov. Rick Perry ordered flags lowered to half-staff in his honor.

In charge of that ceremony was now retired Maj. Gen. Albert Valenzuela. The two soldiers had met 33 years earlier at Fort Sam Houston.

"The story that has to be told is that he is an unsung hero," Valenzuela said. "He is one of the 42 Hispanic Medal of Honor recipients."

Valenzuela said that in those 33 years, Lopez never talked about the events that earned him America's most treasured military decoration.

"He was a very quiet man - an introvert," Valenzuela recalled. "He thought of himself as just a plain soldier who did what he had to do to save his fellow soldiers and defend his country."

Valenzuela said Lopez never considered himself a hero for his actions on that cold December day in Belgium. Accounts of the battle prove otherwise.

German offensive

Born near Veracruz, Mexico, and orphaned at 8, Lopez drifted north to Mission where a family fed him and let him sleep in a shed.

When he was older, he rode the rails, going from one job to the next. He even made a name for himself as a professional boxer.

At the start of World War II, Lopez returned to the Rio Grande Valley, his adopted home, where he got married and enlisted in the U.S. Army at Brownsville.

He was assigned to a weapons platoon and set foot on continental Europe on June 7, 1944, the day after D-Day, according to his obituary in the May 16, 2005, edition of the Washington Post.

On Dec. 16, 1944, the German army launched its last major attack of World War II when 500,000 troops began the Ardennes offensive, hoping to split the American and British armies. The campaign became known as the Battle of the Bulge.

Fate had placed Lopez in the crosshairs of history.

Lopez and the rest of Company K were outside Krinkelt, Belgium, on the second day of the offensive. The frozen ground had made it difficult to dig a hole deep enough for adequate protection, exposing Lopez's upper torso to enemy fire, according to reports of the battle.

In the early morning, Lopez heard the rumbling of a diesel engine, according to son-in-law Guy Wickwire, who researched the battle.

 "After what seemed like an eternity, it slowly rolled into view. Jose was horrified; it was a tank - a German tank - and not just a normal tank - it was a German Tiger tank," Wickwire wrote.

"As Jose gulped in fear, German foot soldiers also came into view, walking cautiously behind the tank," Wickwire continued.

"Initially, Jose was frozen in fear and did not know what to do. He thought about his 38 buddies in Company K a quarter mile further down the road, sitting around a fire in a clearing next to the road. Surely, they would all be killed or captured.

"He also thought about his wife and two children back in Texas. His whole life and fate flashed in front of him. He prayed for God to help him, and then he knew what he had to do," Wickwire wrote.

Manning a machine gun, Lopez gunned down 10 advancing Germans behind the Tiger tank. He knew the machine gun would have no effect on the tank.

Ignoring enemy fire and the advancing tank, he killed another 25 Germans attempting to turn his flank, according to his Medal of Honor citation.

By this time, the Tiger tank stopped and the turret turned to face him and began firing.

"Jose could tell the first projectile had gone over his head and hit harmlessly way behind him," Wickwire wrote.

Again the tank fired and the shell once more passed over his head. Lopez continued to return fire.

The tank fired a third time and this time the shell landed 10 feet in front of him. The concussion lifted the gun and Lopez off the ground and blew them both backward.

"As he opened his eyes, all he could see was a cloud of smoke, dirt and snow," Wickwire wrote.

The Germans may have thought they killed him.

Although the blast left him dazed and shaken, he managed to carry the machine gun to a more advantageous position as German tanks and infantry closed in.

He reset the machine gun and returned fire, making certain his company had made a successful withdrawal before he loaded the machine gun on his back, dodging enemy fire as he ran to a spot where a few comrades were setting up a new defense, according to the citation. He fired until he ran out of ammunition, killing more Germans.

He and his small group then fell back to Krinkelt.

When the Germans tried to enter Krinkelt that night, another American contingent, Company I, was ready and kept the enemy from capturing the town. The following day, Dec. 18, the Germans were gone.

About five miles away, an Army scout told the soldiers holding Krinkelt there had been a big battle the night before five miles away, Wickwire wrote. The Americans had won.

"While in Krinkelt, Captain Wilson wrote up the report, which included the heroics of Jose Lopez," Wickwire noted.

That report became the basis for Lopez's Medal of Honor.

"Sgt. Lopez's gallantry and intrepidity, on seemingly suicidal missions in which he killed at least 100 of the enemy, were almost solely responsible for allowing Company K to avoid being enveloped," his Medal of Honor citation reads.

His place in history was set.

Valenzuela said Lopez, along with other Medal of Honor recipients, shared a common denominator. "They were at the intersection of happenstance and hell," he said.

In addition, Lopez also received a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star and was awarded Mexico's highest military commendation, la Condecoracion de Merito Militar.

After the war

Lopez remained in the Army and returned to combat during the Korean War.

A ranking officer learned Lopez was a Medal of Honor recipient, however, and ordered him off the front lines. He served his remaining time in South Korea picking up bodies and registering them for burial.

"Once they do a heroic act (such as receiving the Medal of Honor), the military has a tendency to pull them out of combat," Valenzuela said.

His latter years in the Army were spent recruiting along with overseeing a motor pool and maintenance crews.

He retired in 1973 as a master sergeant.

As a civilian, he continued to work, sometimes holding two jobs at a time.

In the meantime, he and his wife of 62 years, Emilia, raised five children, including daughter Maggie Wickwire.

Lopez lived with Maggie and husband Guy in San Antonio until his death three years ago when he lost his final battle with cancer.

Valenzuela said he visited Lopez a few days before his death.

"I think he was ready (to die). He was prepared to leave. He had accomplished everything he wanted," Valenzuela said.

Maggie Wickwire said her dad's World War II exploits remained somewhat of a mystery to her for much of her life.

"As we were growing up, he was busy being a father," she said. "He maintained two jobs to put food on the table and would work double shifts."

Sometimes he worked day and night. She remembers riding with him at night when he would turn sprinklers on to water a golf course, and when he finished turning them all on, it was time to start back and turn them all off.

"He never talked about his war experiences, and we didn't ask," she said. "It wasn't because we didn't care. It was because we didn't know.

"I was 35 years old before I got to hear his story for the first time."

Wickwire delved more into her father's war exploits and what made him take on such a suicidal mission on that frigid day in Belgium.

"He thought he did something anyone would do," she said. "Later, he realized what he did was important and always said he would do it again."

As for being a hero, "he never said it," Wickwire said.

"When we got him to talk about (the battle), he would tell us what he did. And when he told us, we knew he was a hero ... What he did was very, very brave."

Lopez kept his Medal of Honor in a box and would wear it on special occasions. Today, that medal is kept at the home of granddaughter June Pedraza.

On one occasion, Lopez wore his Medal of Honor and dress uniform to a San Antonio Spurs basketball game at the Alamo Dome.

During halftime, Lopez and fellow Medal of Honor recipients Lucian Adams and Louis Rocco were recognized. Adams was originally from Port Arthur and Rocco from Albuquerque, but both were residing in San Antonio at the time.

Honoring the three were Secretary of Defense William Cohen and the U.S. Air Force Cadet Chorale.

But maybe the biggest tribute came from the fans themselves. While they usually leave their seats during halftime, most of the 17,000 at the game stayed to take in the ceremony and gave the Medal of Honor recipients a standing ovation.

Lopez cared for his ailing wife Emilia until her death in 2004. The next year, he died.

At his burial ceremony at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery, Valenzuela delivered the eulogy and presented the American flag to his family.

"I basically said he was born in poverty, very humble and never bragged about what he did in the military," said Valenzuela, who mentions Lopez in his book "No Greater Love - Lives and Times of Hispanic Soldiers. "

Lopez was given a three-volley rifle salute by a military honor guard followed by the playing of "Taps."

His gravestone probably sums up his life best with the words "Husband, father, soldier, patriot."

Lopez's legacy lives on. In San Antonio, Jose M. Lopez Middle School is named after him. In Mission, a city park and street bear his name and a statue at Brownsville Veterans Park, next to the Brownsville Public Library, shows Lopez carrying the machine gun on Dec. 17, 1944.

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