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The hero from Hillsborough High

Baldomero Lopez's split-second decision upon landing in Korea became an iconic moment for the Marines and helped Tampa establish an identity.

© St. Petersburg Times
published July 22, 2003

[U.S. Marine Corps, from collections of the Naval Historical Center]
A photographer captures 1st Lt. Baldomero Lopez leading his Marine platoon over the steep Inchon Red Beach seawall on Sept. 15, 1950. Minutes later, the Tampa native was killed shielding his men from a grenade blast as they attacked a machine gun bunker.
[U.S. Navy]
The MV 1st Lt. Baldomero Lopez is a Marine Corps cargo ship that carries supplies, small boats and serves as a landing and takeoff point for helicopters.

Baldomero Lopez was bored.

The day was Sept. 14, 1950, and Lopez, "Baldy" to his friends, sat bobbing on a boat somewhere off the coast of Korea. It was the same endless view of sky and water that the 25-year-old Marine first lieutenant had seen for days.

And so, with nothing better to do, Lopez sat down to write a letter to his parents and 21-year-old brother, Joe, at home in Tampa.

In the letter, Lopez asked his Spanish father to send him some good cigars. And he spoke of the battle awaiting him on the Korean Peninsula, and of his fears and sense of duty.

"My business is out here in the Far East where the present international crisis is located," Lopez wrote. "Knowing that the profession of arms calls for many hardships and many risks, I feel that you all are now prepared for any eventuality. If you catch yourself starting to worry, just remember that no one forced me to accept my commission in the Marine Corps."

Lopez signed and sealed his letter.

The next morning, he boarded a launch that took him to the shores of Inchon harbor, part of the second wave of Marines to land on the beach. This attack - a surprise thrust to Seoul that divided and trapped enemy forces in the bottom of the peninsula - would help Gen. Douglas MacArthur's reputation as a brilliant military tactician.

Lopez stepped onto Korean soil with his troops and immediately had to contend with a 10-foot seawall.

Without hesitation, he turned and yelled, "Follow me," to his platoon and was first over the wall.

On the other side, an enemy machine gun bunker poured fire down on the Marines, pinning them behind whatever cover they could find.

Lopez pulled the pin on a grenade. But, just as he raised his arm to throw, bullets tore through his right arm and shoulder.

He fell to the ground, his grenade landing a few feet away. Realizing that the blast from the live grenade would probably kill several nearby Marines, Lopez cradled it with his arm and pulled it under his wounded body. He took the full brunt of the explosion and died instantly.

Lopez's family received a telegram informing them of their son's death one day after they received his final letter.

Some time later his parents, who described their son in contemporary newspaper articles as "always so happy," were given the bittersweet duty of accepting his posthumous Medal of Honor. He was one of two men from Florida to receive the ultimate distinction in Korea.

Lopez's death at Inchon was the culmination of a lifelong desire for military duty. Lopez, who grew up in the vibrant world of 1920s and '30s Ybor City, was named brightest, most bashful and most representative of his 1943 Hillsborough High School graduating class.

From there, he attended and graduated from the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., and chose the life of a Marine. During this time, Hillsborough County School Board member Glenn Barrington got to know Lopez. Both men had attended Hillsborough High School and both chose a life in the service.

Barrington, who was a year behind Lopez in school, said he recalls little about Lopez in high school other than that he was popular, smart and had a reputation for being a good guy.

Barrington and Lopez spent time together while serving in the Navy in Quantico, Va. Barrington said he and his former wife had dinner with Lopez on several occasions. He remembers a polite, quiet man who could bring smiles to the dinner table with well-timed funny interjections.

Lopez's death was a shock, he said.

"It was just one of those terrible things, but a hell of an act of bravery on his part," Barrington said. "But I guess that was the kind of man he was."

Lopez has been credited with giving Tampa an identity. He was a patriotic Hispanic-American who came out of a mostly immigrant neighborhood to give his life in service to his country.

The city of his birth has honored Lopez in many ways. In 1963, a pool complex was named for him. His name is on an elementary school in Seffner and the state veterans nursing home in Land O' Lakes. The nation honored Lopez by placing his name on a 46,000-ton military freighter, currently moving supplies through the oceans of the world.

So it was with a sense of hometown pride 41/2 years ago that Murdock Ford, upon founding the Tampa Chapter of the Korean Veterans Association, named the chapter for Lopez.

Ford said the organization hopes to put up a new community building. Central to that will be a statue in memory of Lopez.

But the statue, Ford said, will not be of his bust, or of him standing in full dress uniform. Instead, it will be modeled after a famous picture of Lopez. A Defense Department photographer snapped a photograph of Lopez mounting the wall at Inchon at the head of his platoon. Just seconds later, Lopez died.

Ford, who as a 16-year-old landed at Inchon a mere 300 yards from Lopez, said this image will be cast in bronze, not just because of its meaning to the community, but because of what it represents to Korean War veterans.

"That's our picture for the Marines in the Korean War," Ford said. "It's like (the flag-raising) at Iwo Jima was for the Marines in World War II. . . . It means so much to local veterans."

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