50 states, 50 heroes: The Arizona Kid

Published 5:20 am Saturday, January 18, 2020

Born June 15, 1922, in Miami, Arizona, Manuel Verdugo Mendoza entered the U.S. Army in November 1942. After basic training at Fort MacArthur, California, Mendoza was assigned to Company B of the 350th Infantry Regiment, 88th Infantry Division.

The 88th was sent overseas on Dec. 6, 1943, and after a brief time in North Africa, Mendoza and the 88th found themselves in Naples, Italy. Mendoza saw combat in the fierce Battle of Monte Cassino as the division pushed north up the Italian Peninsula. It eventually entered Rome and crossed the Tiber River, briefly getting some rest and training on June 11, 1944, before crossing the Arno River and facing bitter enemy resistance on June 20. After a period of rest and training, the 88th attacked the German defensive position known as the Gothic Line on Sept. 21.  The division pushed along the Firenzuolalmola Road and captured the strategic position of Mount Battaglia on Sept. 28.

Mendoza and his company were at Mount Battaglia when the Germans launched a vicious counterattack on Oct. 4. The attack began with a mortar barrage. Mendoza, at the time a platoon sergeant, was wounded in the arm and leg. Despite his wounds, Mendoza grabbed a Thompson submachine gun and ran towards the crest of the hill. There he saw approximately 200 German troops charging up the hill straight at him.

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While most would have run or called for help, Mendoza chose to engage the enemy, killing 10 men before exhausting his ammunition. He then grabbed a carbine and, having exhausted its ammunition, engaged the enemy with his pistol, killing an advancing enemy soldier armed with a flamethrower.

As the enemy continued to advance, Mendoza jumped into an unoccupied machine gun emplacement and continued to fight. Unfortunately, the emplacement did not allow a wide enough area for him to engage the advancing Germans, so he picked up the machinegun and moved forward, firing from the hip as he went. He then positioned himself on the ground and continued to pour on the fire at the oncoming enemy, causing mass confusion.

As the fight continued, Mendoza’s machine gun jammed, leaving him with nothing but hand grenades. Mendoza started throwing the grenades at the Germans, who found themselves taking cover from the explosions. Confused and disorganized, the Germans fled down the hill. Mendoza then ran down the hill to gather enemy weapons and capture a wounded German soldier before returning to the top of the hill to consolidate its defense.

In the end, Mendoza had killed 30 enemy soldiers and single-handedly prevented the Germans from overrunning his position. His bravery earned him the Distinguished Service Cross and the nickname “The Arizona Kid.”

Mendoza resigned from the Army in 1945, but re-enlisted in 1949. After service in the Korean War, Mendoza left the Army in 1953 with the rank of Master Sergeant. Among his other awards were the Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts.

After his time in the service, Mendoza worked as a foreman at the Palo Verde Nuclear Generation Station in Maricopa County, Arizona, before retiring due to ill health. He died at the age of 79 on Dec. 12, 2001, and is buried in the Mountain View Funeral Home and Cemetery in Mesa, Arizona.

In 2014, Mendoza’s service record was reviewed under the Defense Authorization Act, which called for a re-examination of service records for minority soldiers who may have been denied the Medal of Honor due to discrimination (Mendoza was Hispanic). After the review, Mendoza’s Distinguished Service Cross was upgraded to the Medal of Honor. President Barack Obama posthumously awarded Mendoza the medal, which was accepted by his wife, Alice Mendoza, during a White House ceremony on March 18, 2014.