Five Days and Forever

This article was published in The St. Petersburg Times on May 26, 1997:

By Wes Platt

Inchon, Korea, Sept. 15, 1950, 5:15 p.m.

Half of 1st Platoon foundered in a broken-down boat. The other half scrambled up the seawall at Inchon, then were pinned down by a North Korean army bunker.

Third Platoon, a reserve squad led by an untried Marine named Baldomero Lopez, scaled the wall and lobbed grenades into the zigzagging trench that led to the bunker.

Lopez, 25, a gung-ho soldier from Tampa, was not supposed to be here. He was assigned stateside, to a Marine Corps school. But he could not play it safe while his fellow Marines laid it on the line in Korea.

He begged. He cajoled.

The Corps granted his wish. Now, in his first firefight, Lopez closed on the bunker. He dropped to his knees, yanked the pin from a grenade and drew back his right arm for the pitch.

A staccato burst stitched the Marine’s right side. Lopez dropped the live grenade and fell on his stomach.

“Grenade!” he shouted.

With his right elbow, he pulled the grenade beneath himself, against his belly, and died so that his platoon might survive.

His sacrifice earned Lopez a Medal of Honor. In the half-century since, his selfless gesture has been commemorated several times.

A rifle range at the 1st Amphibian Tractor Battalion was named after him. The U.S. Naval Academy named the room he occupied as a midshipman after him. A pool at Tampa’s MacFarlane Park was dedicated in his honor. So was an elementary school in Seffner. The Marines named a pre-positioning ship after him.

At 10:30 a.m. Friday, ground is to be broken for the Baldomero Lopez State Veterans Nursing Home in Land O’Lakes, in central Pasco County.

More than 50 years ago he walked the halls of Hillsborough High School, an anonymous student. Today he is remembered as an overachiever, a soldier, a hero.

The Class of 1943 is at the threshold of a new life – so full of adventure and yet so uncertain that it is not within our power to make definite plans. Some of our class will enter at once into the service of their country . . . they are part of a vast and magnificent effort to bring lasting peace to a scourged world. They are willing to make the necessary sacrifices to bring about this end.

– Hillsborough High School yearbook, 1943

He had a full head of dark hair, but friends called him Baldy. That was easier to pronounce than Baldomero (BAL-doh-mero).

He was born in Tampa to an Italian-American mother and a Spanish father who worked in an Ybor City cigar factory. Dressed in ROTC gray, a cadet colonel, Lopez strode the halls of red brick and stained glass Hillsborough High School. The country was at war.

A member of Key Club and Honor Society, he was picked at a senior breakfast at the Floridan Hotel as most representative boy, most bashful, and brightest.

“He had a lot of friends, but he didn’t go out much with them. He was sort of a loner,” recalled Milton Gallagher, a cadet lieutenant colonel in the ROTC with Lopez.

They practiced maneuvers with friends after school and on weekends all over Seminole Heights, waiting in ambush behind shrubs and under porches.

“We had all the neighbors scared, I think,” Gallagher said. “They thought someone was invading.”

Jose Lopez says he was the rebellious younger brother always stumbling into mischief.

“Baldomero tried to do a lot with me,” said Jose, who is now 67. “He helped me quite a bit and tried to straighten me up. He’d say to me, `You make momma cry. You can’t make momma cry all the time.’ “

After graduation, Baldy Lopez itched to enlist. The morning of his physical, stringy, lightweight Lopez ate six bananas to make sure he would meet the Navy’s weight requirement.

The Navy enlisted Lopez and recruited him for the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. He finished the four-year program in three.

He had wanted to become a pilot, his brother recalled, but an eye injury while with the Navy boxing team damaged his sight. On the team, he earned a new nickname: Punchy.

After Annapolis, Baldomero Lopez joined the storied 1st Division of the U.S. Marine Corps. He served as executive officer to Capt. John Stevens with the 5th Marines at Camp Pendleton, Calif.

“He was one of those people that was able to gain respect from peers, subordinates and superiors by being himself,” said Stevens, who is 76 now and runs an electronics company in San Francisco.

Frank Muetzel, who was second lieutenant in the 5th Marines with Lopez, says Lopez cared about the enlisted men, bailing them out when they found trouble in Tijuana or Capistrano.

“That’s what an exec is supposed to be,” Muetzel said. “The captain doesn’t have time to wet-nurse those kids. So Lopez always made sure their interests were looked out for.”

June 25, 1950: North Korean forces, backed by the Soviet Union, swept across the 38th Parallel to invade South Korea. The United States, under President Harry S. Truman, gave military support to South Korea.

When war broke out, Marine Corps headquarters wanted Lopez to attend partisan warfare school in Quantico, Va.

The classroom? When men he knew, men he supervised at Pendleton, were going overseas to fight the North Koreans?

Muetzel knew the feeling. He and another Pendleton Marine, Tom Johnson, were to become infantry instructors at non-commissioned officers school.

“All three of us were detached when this fool war started,” Muetzel said. “We’d been unit members for more than a year. These were our people going to war. We knew their names. So Johnson and I went down to get our orders changed.”

For them, it was simple.

Their orders, unlike Lopez’s, did not come from headquarters.

“He was out of the question,” Muetzel said. “He couldn’t just pick up the phone. He was expected at formal school back east.”

Second Lt. Tom Gibson, quoted in Donald Knox’s The Korean War: An Oral History, said:

“Naval Academy and career guy and here comes Korea and Punchy’s shunted off to some safe stateside school. He couldn’t stand it. Before the brigade sailed, Punchy swore he was going to move heaven and earth to get to us. . . . Lopez couldn’t wait to get at the bastards.”

Three months later, the 5th Marines needed replacements before invading Inchon, the turning point of the Korean War. When the USS Henrico docked at Pusan on Sept. 10, Able Company found Lopez waiting with fresh-faced privates.

“I don’t know what he did, what strings he pulled to get there, but he did it,” Muetzel said. “When he came in, a man of his quality, his caliber, boy, I was glad to see him.”

Stevens had a new executive officer, so he put Lopez in charge of 3rd Platoon, the reserve platoon for Inchon. Stevens did not expect Lopez to see much action.

“With platoon leaders, if someone lasts through two firefights, their chances of survival are pretty good,” Stevens said. “I wanted to get Lopez through those two fights, so I assigned him to the reserve platoon because of his lack of combat experience.”

Aboard the Henrico, Muetzel stashed two cases of Pabst Blue Ribbon under his bunk – against regulations – until the night before the landing. He kept the beer cool with a fire extinguisher.

So what if it was against the rules.

“In my heart of hearts, I knew I would never survive,” he said. “I could care less what the regulations were. I figured, `What the hell?’ “

That night, Muetzel shared the beer with fellow Marines – and Lopez stuck his head through the hatchway.

“This was a guy who wouldn’t break the rules if you gave him a million bucks,” Muetzel said. “He was Joe Straight, all the way. But I invited him in, and he came in, and he actually had a can of beer.”

The next afternoon, five days after joining his old unit, Lopez gave his life to save theirs.

After the Korean War, Muetzel went to Stanford University “because I needed the rough edges filed off.” Three years ago, he retired as finance officer to the Catholic diocese in Springfield. He is 71.

He thinks knowing Lopez softened him and made him a better person.

“I won’t say I picked up his class, but I learned what a gentleman was,” Muetzel said. “I learned right from wrong. That’s a big thing to learn right there.”

When the 5th Marines get together, they remember the sacrifice of Lopez.

“He was only with us five days, but everyone talks about him fondly,” Muetzel said. He laughs slightly. “Hell, nobody talks about me that way, but they remember Lopez and what he did for them.

“He was one of a kind.”

– Researcher Kitty Bennett and Donald Knox’s The Korean War: An Oral History, contributed to this report.

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