When motorists drive past the Baldomero Lopez State Veterans Nursing Home in Land O’ Lakes, chances are they won’t know much about the history of the man for whom the facility is named.
That’s where Bill Dotterer comes in.
He’s a volunteer with the Tampa Bay History Center and he shared the story of 1st Lt. Baldomero Lopez’s life and his heroic actions during a talk earlier this year at the Jimmie B. Keel Regional Library. The history center and library jointly presented the free program.
Lopez may not be widely known in many circles, but he is in the U.S. Marine Corps, Dotterer said.
“Lopez is a very important person in Tampa Bay’s history,” the speaker added, noting Lopez was the first person who grew up in Tampa to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Dotterer shared details of Lopez’s early years.
Lopez grew up during a time when Ybor City and West Tampa were vibrant places, with a thriving cigar industry, with people living there who had come from Spain, Cuba, Italy and Sicily, Dotterer said. There were social clubs, baseball teams and dominoes, he noted, and Lopez grew up in that milieu.
“In the neighborhood where he lived, he was well known as a baseball player. He had a paper route. He was just an All-American kid,” Dotterer said.
Lopez also was interested in the military.
He attended Hillsborough High School, where he was in charge of the ROTC program. He marched in the Gasparilla Parade one year, leading all of the junior ROTC units, Dotterer said.
The speaker noted that much of his talk was based on information he gleaned from a conversation he had with E.J. Salcines, a former judge and noted Tampa historian.
Lopez was third in his class when he graduated from Hillsborough High in 1943. He decided to enlist in the Navy, Dotterer said.
Initially, Lopez was sent to Quantico, Virginia, but he was pulled from that program and sent to Annapolis for an officer training program, Dotterer added. Next, he joined the U.S. Marine Corps, as a second lieutenant.
By then, it was 1947 and the war had ended.
Lopez was sent to China, to lead a mortar platoon, and after that, he returned to Camp Pendleton, where he received orders to become an instructor at the Basic School in Quantico, Dotterer said.
Lopez was still at Pendleton when the Korean War broke out and his unit was assigned to go overseas, Dotterer said. Lopez wanted to go with them.
Dotterer then shared this account, which he said came from Salcines.
Lopez was a on a train, heading from California to Virginia, Dotterer said.
“Every place that the train stopped, he got off and called and said, ‘Please change my orders. I want to go with my unit.’
“When he finally gets to Quantico, they say, ‘OK, you can rejoin your unit.’,” Dotterer said.
Lopez heads back to California, but at that point, his unit is already gone. Somehow, he catches up with them, across the Pacific, Dotterer continued.
The Korean War began when the North Koreans attacked south of this 38th parallel, which is what divides North Korea and South Korea, Dotterer said.
Gen. Douglas MacArthur was the head commander of allied forces in Korea, and he decided to take back Seoul, Dotterer said.
The invasion is made at Inchon Harbor, near Seoul.
It wasn’t an ideal place to invade because it had the third-highest tides in the world, going from zero to 40 feet in a day. It also had 40-foot seawalls around it, which the Marines had to build ladders to scale, Dotterer said.
“The anchorage, itself, where all of the ships would end up for the invasion, was pretty small. It was pretty tight to get in there,” he added.
At the same time, however, the limiting factors at Inchon also may have made it a good place to invade because the enemy would never expect it, he said.
Lopez demonstrated courage
Lopez, who was 25, was on one of the landing ships.
Before the invasion, he wrote his parents a final letter, not knowing it would be his final letter, Dotterer said.
“Basically, he said, ‘Hey, I chose to do this, so if anything happens, I decided I wanted to be a Marine officer, so here I am. Secondly, please send me some good cigars.’
“On Sept. 15, the invasion begins. He is with Company A, First Battalion, Fifth Marines, and they’re going into Red Beach,” Dotterer said.
There were two hills, which meant the enemy was at the top of the hill shooting down.
An iconic photograph, taken during the invasion, shows Lopez leading his troops up a wooden ladder over the seawall, Dotterer said.
“Sad to say, this is minutes before he is killed. He’s leading his troops over the seawall. There’s a machine-gun, automatic type position here, that they are trying to take out.
“He had actually pulled a pin on a grenade to throw it into the pill box,” Dotterer said.
Instead, “he gets hit with automatic weapon fire. One in the shoulder. One in the abdomen or chest. He’s shot down. That grenade has the pin out.”
Within seconds, Lopez decided to save his troops. He scooped the grenade under his body.
“He took the full brunt of the grenade in the explosion. His troops were essentially saved. They went on to take that pillbox,” Dotterer said.
Since then, Lopez has been honored in various ways.
There’s a historic marker commemorating Lopez’s heroics in downtown Tampa and there’s a memorial for him at Hillsborough High School. There’s a public elementary school named after him in Seffner and there’s a memorial to Lopez at Veterans Memorial Park.
In 2012, the Tampa Bay History Center received a Korean War Veterans Medal on behalf of Lopez, presented by Jong-Hoon Kim, a member of the 19th National Assembly and Chair of the International Relations Committee, Saenuri Party. Kim was accompanied by Choi Young-Jin, the Korean Ambassador to the United Nations and other Korean Dignitaries.
Additionally, there’s Lopez Hall at the Basic School aboard Marine Corps Base Quantico, a dining facility that was dedicated in 2013, and there’s a navy ship named in his honor.
And, the Marine Corps Association and Foundation, (MCA&F), bestows The Lieutenant Baldomero Lopez Honor Graduate Award to the Marine of each graduating company from the Basic School who demonstrates the highest potential for future leadership and responsibility in the Marine Corps.
In essence, Dotterer said, “he was an amazing hero.”
Published June 6, 2018