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War & Locale: World War II -- European Theater
Date of Birth:
Rea Ann Trotter
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By Ayesha Mirza
Jose Angel Lopez saw myriad battlegrounds while braving the frontlines across France, Belgium and Germany in World War II.
His tales of loss and heroism are as abundant as the grains of sand on the Normandy coast. He was part of General George S. Patton's 3d Army, who liberated one of the first and largest Nazi concentration camps at Buchenwald, captured Hitler's designated successor, Hermann Goering, and saved the city of Luxembourg from German troops in the Battle of the Bulge.
During the course of his interview, Lopez recalled moments of courage and periods of cowardice. His is a saga of innocence forgotten and emotion lost to the atrocities of warfare.
"You have to make yourself not feel," he said. "You have to get used to it. You see a friend ... You see if he's alive ... If he's not, you turn his rifle around, stick the bayonet in the ground and put his helmet on it. That told the medics he was dead."
Even though these events occurred more than fifty years before Lopez was interviewed, the memories still provoked some emotion.
"It's hard to start feeling after war. It's very hard," he said. "I'm thinking about all that ... I feel like crying now."
A self-proclaimed "Texican" Lopez was born in Jourdanton, Texas, about 30 miles southwest of San Antonio. His father, Jose Angel Lopez – a snake charmer, magician and part-time bootlegger – eventually entered the scrap business upon moving to Cuero, Texas, in 1929 with his family. Lopez's father and mother, Petra Flores, who was part Apache, were married for 50 years.
As a result of the Depression, which left in its wake severe unemployment levels, Lopez joined the Civilian Conservation Corps for about three months prior to the war. Lopez's CCC group built roadside parks, benches and tables in Texas.
He volunteered for service in the United States Army in 1941.
"My parents thought that I was doing the right thing by joining," he said.
To his surprise, upon entering the Army, there were five men named "Joe Lopez" in his company.
"When they first called out roll call, 'Joe Lopez, Joe Lopez, Joe Lopez, Joe Lopez, Joe Lopez.' They said, 'We're going to have to do something about this,'" he recalled.
Lopez had to pick a middle initial in order to separate the names, so he chose "F," from his mother's maiden name, Flores.
"I became Joe F. Lopez," he said. "It's in my discharge papers and my driver's license."
On July 15, 1942, the 80th Infantry Division, the Blue Ridge Division, was ordered to active service. Lopez reported to Camp Forrest in Tennessee, and later trained at Camp Phillips in Kansas, as well as in the California-Arizona maneuver area, the largest military training ground in the history of military maneuvers. En route to the training area, the train stopped in Lopez's hometown.
"The bad part was the train wasn't but a half a block from my mother's house, and I could see my mother and all the family on the porch, looking at the soldiers," he said. "The train had stopped for water, but we couldn't get out. I was waving, but there were so many soldiers that they couldn't see me. They didn't know I was there. I wanted to go AWOL for an hour or so, just to see my mother ... to go and say hello."
On July 1, 1944, the 80th was shipped to Fort Dix in new Jersey and boarded the Queen Mary, sailing for Northwich, England, for three months of intensive training.
In late 1944, Lopez and his division rescued Luxembourg from German troops commanded by Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt during the Battle of the Bulge. They made a 150-mile motorized march in only 36 hours to form a defensive line around the city. More than a million men, including 600,000 Germans, 500,000 Americans and 55,000 British participated in the Battle of the Bulge, the largest land battle of the Second World War. The battle was Hitler's last-ditch attempt at winning the war and slowing the Allied advance.
The Battle of the Bulge was very costly in terms of both men and equipment, but marked the first stages of Germany's defeat. Lopez often wondered with each day of battle if that day would be his last.
"It's a terrible thing going back into battle and thinking, 'Maybe this will be it,'" he said. "You don't want it to be. You would give anything to go home again."
In early April of 1945, Lopez and the units of the 3rd Army reached Ettersberg Hill. The SS fled Buchenwald, one of the largest Nazi concentration camps. Buchenwald held approximately 20,000 prisoners, most worked as slave laborers in nearby factories. The camp was located on a wooded hill about four and a half miles northwest of Weimar, Germany. Although there were no gas chambers, hundreds perished monthly due to disease, malnutrition, exhaustion, beatings and executions. The camp also contained an official department for medical research.
"We didn't know the Germans had these camps until we captured that one," Lopez said. "They just smiled when they saw us ... all you could see was jaws and teeth ... walking skeletons, nothing but bones and skin. Those poor people. When we liberated them, they just came to the fence. They could barely walk ... it looked like they were holding onto the fence to keep from falling..."
The following month, Hermann Goering – commander-in-chief of the Luftwaffe and president of the Reichstag, prime minister of Prussia and Hitler's designated successor – was captured by Lopez's company.
"He didn't act scared at all," he said. "He knew we wouldn't shoot because he was a big wheel."
The 80th Infantry Division spent 239 days in combat and took more than 212,000 prisoners of war, according the Center for Military History's Web site, which is maintained by the U.S. Army.
Lopez returned home in December of 1946. He finished high school, trained as a machinist and after various jobs and different machine shops, he opened a shop of his own.
Lopez's memories of the war were largely stashed in the recesses of his mind, sparks of recollection rekindled only in the presence of his mother.
"I used to tell her stories," he said. "The war made a man out of me. It sure did."
Prior to the war, Lopez said he was careless and immature. As a result of his wartime experiences, he found he’d developed mentally and emotionally to a greater state of maturity and well-being.
Although years had passed since the war, and memories remained suppressed in the corners of his mind, Lopez apparently couldn’t relinquish those scenes to the passage of time.
"When I first got back, I used to dream of the atrocities over there," he said. "Sometimes I dream about it, the war ... I still dream."
Mr. Lopez was interviewed in Houston, Texas, on October 11, 1995, by Rea Ann Trotter.