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50 states, 50 heroes: ‘Follow me!’

Born Aug. 23, 1925, in Tampa, Florida, Baldomero López (known to his friends as “Baldy” despite having a full head of hair) grew up in the neighborhood of Ybor City. While attending Hillsborough High School, he was the regimental commander of the school’s Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps program. Upon graduation in 1943, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy.

In 1944, López was appointed to the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis. Because World War II was still ongoing, he and his classmates were placed in an accelerated three-year program; he graduated on June 6, 1947, and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps.

After completing The Basic School at Quantico, Virginia, and Platoon Leaders Class, López served as a mortar section commander and later as a rifle platoon commander in Tsingtao and Shanghai, China. He was later assigned to Camp Pendleton in California; it was there that he was promoted to first lieutenant. In 1950, while at Camp Pendleton, he volunteered for duty in the Korean War.

López was assigned to Company A, First Battalion of the Fifth Marines Regiment, First Marine Division (Reinforced). The division was assigned to participate in General of the Army Douglas MacArthur’s surprise invasion of Inchon Bay, dubbed Operation Chromite. The attack’s objective was to outflank the Korean People’s Army (KPA) and help relieve forces of the United Nations and the Republic of Korea Army, who were trying to defend the Pusan Perimeter from the KPA. From Inchon, combined U.N. forces could strike at Seoul and recapture it from the communist forces.

The landings at Inchon were scheduled for Sept. 15, 1950. The day before the attack, López wrote a letter to his family. In it he 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.”

On the morning of Sept. 15, López and his men disembarked from LCVPs (landing craft, vehicle, personnel) onto theRed Beach sector of Inchon and encountered a 10-foot tall seawall. Knowing that the enemy was waiting for them once they went over the top, López turned to his men and yelled his final order: “Follow me!”

López was the first to climb a ladder over the wall (an image of him doing so was captured in an iconic photograph by Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Herald Tribune war correspondent Marguerite Higgins Hall). As his men followed, they found themselves pinned down by machine gun fire coming from a pillbox in a nearby bunker. López moved alongside the bunker and prepared to toss a grenade, but as he raised his arm, he was shot in the shoulder and right arm, causing the grenade to fall a few feet away. Seeing that the blast could potentially kill several nearby marines, López grabbed it and cradled it under his body. The grenade exploded, killing him instantly; the nearby marines were unharmed.

In reporting on López’s death, Scripps-Howard war correspondent Jerry Thorp said that López “died with the courage that makes men great.” López’s parents received the telegram about his death one day after receiving his final letter.

Secretary of the Navy Dan Kimball posthumously presented the Medal of Honor to López’s family on Aug. 30, 1951. His remains were brought home and buried in Centro Asturiano Memorial Park in Ybor City.

López Elementary School in Seffner, Florida, the Baldomero López State Veterans nursing home in Land O’Lakes, Florida, and the Navy container ship USNS 1st Lt. Baldomero López are all named in his honor. The Korean War Memorial, which contains a rock from Inchon Beach, at the Ed Radice Sports Complex in Tampa was dedicated to López on Veterans Day 2011. The Lieutenant Baldomero López Honor Graduate Award is presented to the top marine in each company at The Basic School at Quantico.