On August 29, 2012, the Tampa Bay History Center was presented with a Korean War Veterans Medal on behalf of Medal of Honor recipient Baldomero Lopez. The medal was presented by Jong-Hoon Kim, a member of the 19th National Assembly and Chair of the International Relations Committee, Saenuri Party. Mr. Kim was accompanied by Choi Young-Jin, the Korean Ambassador to the United Nations and other Korean Dignitaries.
The medal is of particular importance to the Tampa Bay History Center since Lt. Lopez was born and raised in Ybor City, the bustling neighborhood outside of downtown Tampa that served as the center of the cigar-making industry. The son of Spanish and Italian immigrants, he attended Hillsborough High School where he was a star basketball player and a regimental commander in the Junior Reserve Officer’s Training Corp - a federal program intended to instill in participants the “values of citizenship, service to the United States, and personal responsibility and a sense of accomplishment.” Having been told as a young man that he was too small to make the grade in the military, Lopez used the JROTC and his own homemade workout regimen to bulk up. His efforts paid off and Lopez enlisted in the Navy in July of 1943, shortly before his eighteenth birthday.
A year after enlisting Lopez was selected to attend the US Naval Academy in Annapolis. In the midst of World War II, Lopez and his classmates endured an accelerated program that pushed them through in three years rather than the usual four. Lopez was commissioned as second Lieutenant in the Marine Corps upon graduation and served in Shanghai, China before returning to the US.
When the Korean War began in 1950 Baldomero Lopez volunteered to be assigned to a Marine unit headed into harm’s way and was promoted to the rank of First Lieutenant. He was serving as the Platoon Commander of Company A, First Battilion, 5th Marines, 1st Marine Division during the decisive battle at Inchon, and it was during this battle that Baldomero Lopez was killed. On September 15, 1950, moments after a photographer snapped his picture climbing the seawall at Inchon (a photo that became an iconic image of the Korean War), Lopez was seriously injured while arming a grenade. The citation for his Medal of Honor describes the heroic action he took best:
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty as a marine platoon commander of Company A, in action against enemy aggressor forces. With his platoon 1st Lt. Lopez was engaged in the reduction of immediate enemy beach defenses after landing with the assault waves. Exposing himself to hostile fire, he moved forward alongside a bunker and prepared to throw a hand grenade into the next pillbox whose fire was pinning down that sector of the beach. Taken under fire by an enemy automatic weapon and hit in the right shoulder and chest as he lifted his arm to throw, he fell backward and dropped the deadly missile. After a moment, he turned and dragged his body forward in an effort to retrieve the grenade and throw it. In critical condition from pain and loss of blood, and unable to grasp the hand grenade firmly enough to hurl it, he chose to sacrifice himself rather than endanger the lives of his men and, with a sweeping motion of his wounded right arm, cradled the grenade under him and absorbed the full impact of the explosion. His exceptional courage, fortitude, and devotion to duty reflect the highest credit upon 1st Lt. Lopez and the U.S. Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life for his country.
Lopez was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor on August 30th, 1951, sixty-one years ago this week. He was the first Marine to receive the honor during the Korean War (41 others would follow before the conflict ended), and the first of only two Medal of Honor recipients from Tampa Bay. Today he is honored all over Tampa with a state veteran’s nursing home, a Korean War Veterans post, a public elementary school, and a Sealift Command ship all named in his honor. He is buried outside of downtown Tampa at the Centro Asturiano Memorial Park Cemetery, where there is also a memorial dedicated to his bravery.