Editor's Note: Since the U.S. Medal of Honor's establishment in 1861, Congress and presidents of the United States have awarded the citation to more than 3,440 soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and Coast Guardsmen.
It is the highest honor a service member can receive after time on a battle front.
Only three have been awarded to men either born or raised in the Rio Grande Valley - Jose M. Lopez of Mission; William "Billy" Harrell of Mercedes; and Alfredo "Freddy" Gonzalez of Edinburg.
Each served his country with extraordinary gallantry and is remembered for going above and beyond the call of duty.
U.S. Army Sgt. Jose Lopez stood only 5-feet-4 and weighed 135 pounds.
But on Dec. 17, 1944, during the Battle of the Bulge, the Mission soldier 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; he is also credited with almost single-handedly keeping his company from being overrun during the early stages of the surprise winter counteroffensive.
A few months later, U.S. Army Third Corps Commander Maj. Gen. James A. Van Fleet awarded Lopez the U.S. 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 Ret. 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 the United States' 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."
While Lopez never considered himself a hero for his actions on that cold December day in Belgium, accounts of the battle prove otherwise.
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.
His Medal of Honor citation lists Mission as his birthplace, according to his obituary in the May 16, 2005, edition of The Washington Post.
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, where he got married and enlisted in the U.S. Army.
He was assigned to a weapons platoon and set foot on continental Europe on June 7, 1944, the day after D-Day, according to the Post obituary.
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.
He 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 says.
"As Jose gulped in fear, German foot soldiers also came into view, walking cautiously behind the tank," Wickwire continues.
"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."
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.
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.
The Germans may have thought they killed him.
‘Happenstance and hell'
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.
The Americans had won.
"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.
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 and 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 never talked much about his war experiences.
"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."
‘Lives and times'
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.
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.
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 U.S. flag to the Lopez 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's gravestone probably sums up his life best with the words "Husband, father, soldier, patriot."
And his legacy lives on around South Texas.
In San Antonio, Jose M. Lopez Middle School is named after him.
In Mission, a city park and street bear his name.
And in Brownsville, where he joined the U.S. Army at the start of World War II, a statue of him stands at Brownsville Veterans Park, next to the public library. He is memorialized carrying the same type of machine gun he carried Dec. 17, 1944.