Bushmasters always stand tall
Bushmasters always stand tall
Although America had not yet been drawn in, it was inching closer and closer toward its undeniable destiny. Many parts of the world had already been at war for over two years, but in early 1941, Americans were still isolationists. The U.S. economy was rebounding from the Great Depression and many families were still struggling to meet financial responsibilities. The general American sentiment was anti-war and the price paid by American Service members during WWI still lingered in the not so distant past.
In 1941, with just more than two and half decades of statehood, Arizona was the newest addition to the Union. The number of people calling Arizona home barely reached 490,000, which was smaller than the neighboring State of New Mexico, who had over 510,000 during the same period. This did not limit Arizona’s involvement in building America’s fighting force. Arizona was home to three Army Air Corp training sites and a desert training center created by Gen. George S. Patton west of Phoenix. Arizona was establishing itself as a significant contributor to the growing war effort.
Guadalupe “Lupe” Lopez was a young Hispanic American from Tucson, Arizona. Like many who endured the hardships of the Great Depression, he had grown up in very humble beginnings. Born on Christmas Day 1918, he was the second youngest of his six siblings. His father, Ignacio Lopez, worked on local farms and performed any other odd jobs he could to make ends meet. His mother, Rosario, maintained the household and engineered ways to stretch her husband’s hard earned pay.
Growing up, Lupe spent most of his time playing with his brothers and sisters in the vast open desert surrounding their home. The jagged rocks, cholla cactus and other debris never seemed to slow them down despite the fact that most of their lives they did not have shoes to wear. He had only attended school up to the eighth grade, and like many of the children in the community, he began working on the farms to help support his family rather than attending high school.
Ignacio Lopez always wanted more for his family. As Lupe reached adulthood he continued to be hard working and like most fathers hope for, Ignacio could see that his son would have a better life than he did.
“This is your opportunity,” Ignacio encouraged as news spread announcing the U.S. military was recruiting to strengthen its forces. With an expected salary of only $50 a month, it was a welcome increase to the minimal day’s wage he received working in the fields. It would also give him a chance to experience the vast world beyond the borders of his small desert town.
Lupe could remember the first time he had seen a member of the U.S. military. He was 10 years old, and a group of men on horseback approached his family’s home. For fear that they were bandits, Rosario instructed Lupe and his brothers and sisters to run and hide in the mesquite trees and scrub brush that grew sporadically in the desert near their home.
From a distance Lupe could see his father speaking to a man in military uniform. The man was very light skinned. He had light colored eyes and auburn red hair with a mustache and goatee. Although they had never met, the man looked strikingly familiar. Ignacio waved to the children that it was safe to come out and introduced them to his brother, who was a scout for the U.S. military.
The man sat tall on his horse, and as Lupe approached he could see how dignified he looked in his uniform. Although dirty from riding, the uniform still presented a calling of respect. The memory of the man as he rode away from their home forever played lead to Lupe’s imagination and his building desire for adventure.
A foundation for victory
In 1940, the Arizona Army National Guard was comprised of only 1,466 Soldiers with a majority assigned to the 158th Infantry Regiment. Lupe signed as a rifleman with the 158th on Jan. 27, 1941. He and the other newly signed Infantrymen in the regiment had no idea what was in store for them as they shipped off for training.
In September 1940, the 158th had been activated into federal service. Once they reached full recruitment strength, the 158th began training at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Later that year, and after a move and the completion of a training cycle at Camp Barkeley, Texas, the Regiment learned they would be sent to the Panama Canal – a vital and vulnerable artery to America’s defense system.
The United States military had yet to establish a jungle warfare training center, and with expected military campaigns reaching into the Pacific Rim, the necessity to develop jungle warfare tactics was becoming a top priority. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the declaration of war on Japan, the 158th Infantry began honing the jungle warfare techniques they would later use throughout the Pacific theater.
Arriving in Panama on Jan. 2, 1942, Lupe and the Soldiers of the 158th began an intense training program in the jungles, which were better suited for insects and reptiles than they were for men. For weeks on end, the day’s long rains soaked the Soldiers as they hacked though the thick vegetation with machetes, callusing their hands. Frequent dealings with the deadly snakes of the jungle, led to the unit adopting the name “Bushmasters” after the venomous pit vipers found in Central America. A 1943 article in Popular Mechanics Magazine recorded the abilities of the individual Bushmaster jungle Soldier:
"One of America's most colorful and least known soldiers of World War II is the Bushmaster ... His tactics are borrowed from native jungle fighters, the American Indian, British commandos, exponents of judo and the Shanghai underworld ... (He uses) machetes, curved knives, tommy guns, high-powered rifles, and hand grenades ... His average age is 22 and his favorite weapon is the long-bladed machete...With his fellow Bushmasters, he disappears from civilization for weeks at a time. The men know how to sustain themselves on wild fare supplemented by (jungle rations) carried in their packs. When they are not testing their camouflage against aerial observers, making camp in a swamp, or working out an intricate code of communications, they are practicing jujitsu or improve on the native's technique with the machete. The Bushmaster bows to no man in the art of hand-to-hand fighting and any unwary (enemy) who crosses his path would probably never know what hit him."
Surely the tough upbringing in the Arizona desert contributed to Lupe’s adaptability to the harsh conditions he found himself serving in.
With the formation of the 6th Army, the Bushmasters were sent to Brisbane, Australia, Jan. 16, 1943. When the 6th Army's headquarters moved to Goodenough Island, New Guinea, the 2nd Battalion, 158th Regiment provided security to the headquarters. The 158th Regiment landed on the unoccupied island of Kiriwina, New Guinea as part of Operation Chronicle to construct an advanced base and airfield.
Over the next year and a half the 158th battled their way through the Pacific and on Jan. 11, 1945, they would face their toughest challenge yet during the Invasion of the Lingayen Gulf.
During World War II, the Lingayen Gulf proved to be strategically important in the war between American and Japanese forces. On Dec. 22, 1941, the Japanese 14th Army landed on the eastern part of the gulf where they engaged in a number of relatively minor skirmishes with predominantly American and Filipino troops. Following the defeat, Gen. Douglas MacArthur issued the order to retreat from Luzon and withdraw to Bataan. For the next three years, the gulf remained under Japanese occupation.
After the allied landing and initial invasion of Lingayen, the 158th was tasked with the mission of locating and destroying Japanese artillery guns hidden within the mountains of the island. These guns were concealed under Nipa huts and mounted on rails so they could be moved into position to fire, then back to their original placement, disguising them from aerial observation.
On the morning of Jan. 14, 1945, Lupe and the Soldiers of the 158th moved out of Damortis along the Damortis-Rosario Road. The terrain to the north and south of the roadway was paralleled by a network of ridges with an adjoining series of spurs and draws. Enemy tunnels had been constructed to allow artillery pieces to be run through the ridge from the reverse slope. Fortified defensive positions had zeroed in on every possible approach by the assaulting elements.
The 158th was entrusted with protecting the North flank. Able Company was in the lead with Charlie Company close behind. The Japanese held their fire until the advancing units were directly under their muzzles.
As Charlie Company began crossing an open field of rice patties the sky opened up in a hail of gunfire, raining lead and artillery shells. In a blink of an eye the center body of Charlie Company was gone. Able Company was now farther ahead but had been cut off from its trailing companies and was experiencing communication issues. As Able Company took a position just off the roadway near a small series of shacks, the Japanese unleashed a second barrage of artillery fire causing heavy casualties.
The shattered companies began to retreat the area, and Lupe was assigned to the rear guard. As the Japanese continued to shell the area, Lupe, under heavy fire, began to assist in the extraction of wounded soldiers from the battlefield. Returning time and time again, he carried the wounded back to the waiting jeeps. After his fourth and final extraction he laid the seemingly lifeless body of the injured Bushmaster into the jeep.
“Jump in” the driver shouted.
With no room left in the passenger compartment of the jeep, Lupe jumped onto the back spare tire, holding on with all he could as the jeep sped off. As Lupe’s grip began to weaken, his arms and hands fatigued, he prayed to God he could hold on just a little longer as the jeep continued to bob and weave its way down the rugged jungle road.
For the 158th, Jan. 14, 1945, became known as “Bloody Sunday” and was the largest number of casualties sustained by the 158th in any battle during the regiment’s history.
In the days that followed, and throughout Lupe’s life, he reflected back on that day. The coincidence of finding himself in a foreign land on a road that shared the name of his mother, paired with divine intervention, he survived. This was not the first time he contributed his faith in God to keeping him safe.
During an earlier operation of the war, Lupe’s squad came under heavy fire and took cover inside a hut in a village they were patrolling. The hut’s bamboo walls were riddled with bullet holes, almost every inch penetrated by gunfire. As the jungle fell silent, Lupe paused to gather himself when he looked up and saw a picture of the Virgin Guadalupe hanging, undisturbed on the wall above him. Faith, perseverance, and dedication to duty had guided him in some of the fiercest fighting of WWII.
Lupe had been gone from his Tucson home over four years. He had experienced victory and defeat, happiness and grief, and endured the physical and emotional pains of war. None of this could prepare him for the news that would overshadow all of these emotions.
On March 13, 1945, during operations in the European theater Lupe’s younger brother, Ignacio Lopez Jr., was killed in action crossing the Rhine River. Lupe was always close to his brother and knew that his joining the 158th had a direct influence on Ignacio’s decision to join and serve his country as well. In some way, and for the rest of his life, Lupe carried the responsibility of Ignacio’s death in his heart.
A Bushmaster returns home
Lupe was discharged from service on June 17, 1945. Not unlike service members today, Lupe returned to his Tucson home and began the challenges of reentering into the civilized society he helped shield from the hardships of war.
Lupe began working different odd jobs becoming a fish monger and later a cement mason. Eventually he began working for the City of Tucson in the water department.
On Aug. 1, 1946, just over a year after being discharged from the U.S. Army, Lupe received a letter from the War Department in Washington D.C. In the letter it was written:
“I have the honor to inform you that by direction of the President, the Silver Star Medal has been awarded to you by the Commanding General, 43rd Infantry Division for gallantry in action on January 14, 1945 … Sergeant Lopez remained in the rear guard during the movement and helped carry out the wounded. Voluntarily he returned and assisted in carrying out the remainder of the men while under heavy fire until all wounded were evacuated. The fearless actions of Sergeant Lopez undoubtedly resulted in saving some of the men’s lives and his gallant conduct was an inspiration to the men working with him.”
Lupe was proud to have served his country and was proud to be an Arizonan. Although the time he served in the 158th was just a small fraction of his life, it had in some way defined who he was.
Always humble about his service he rarely spoke about his experiences as he started a family of his own. He married and later fathered three boys and three girls. He developed a love for baseball and always cheered for the Los Angeles Dodgers until the State of Arizona welcomed in the Arizona Diamondbacks. Lupe’s love for Arizona trumped just about anything.
In the late 1960s, America again looked overseas at a conflict beginning in an area not unfamiliar to Lupe. Military operations in Vietnam were gaining momentum and this time it would put Lupe in his father’s shoes as his oldest son, Guadalupe “Rey” Reyes-Lopez, would answer the call to service in 1969.
My father was always very quiet and humble about his military service,” Rey said. “When I told him I was joining the U.S. Army he was very proud and immediately he began to open up about his experiences to in some way impart his knowledge and experience onto me.”
In the weeks leading up to Rey leaving for basic training, Lupe gave him tips he learned during his jungle warfare training and experiences with the 158th.
Lupe would tell Rey, “keep your head down and walk lower than everyone else. This will keep your silhouette below the horizon line and make you less of a target.”
He passed on many other tips to keep Rey healthy and safe, all of which served him well when Rey returned home in 1972 unharmed after a three-year enlistment and tour in Vietnam.
Lupe’s inspiration to serve did not stop there; countless grandchildren and other relatives enlisted in all branches of the U.S. Armed Forces.
As the decades passed and Lupe aged, he never seemed to forget who he was and that no matter what else he did he was a Bushmaster. In 2013, he took part in the City of Tucson’s ceremony to unveil a WWII memorial to recognize all of the Tucsonans that served during the war. He inspected the wall with special detail ensuring that his brother Ignacio’s name was included on the wall.
“That’s the first thing I did when I received the paper,” Lupe said. “I looked for his name and by God it was there.”
Lupe was again humbled to be taken by Honor Flight of Southern Arizona to Washington D.C., and visit the National WWII Memorial in 2014. Throughout his life he was always grateful and amazed by strangers that would see him in his Silver Star WWII veteran cap and thank him for his service.
Sept. 14, 2015, Lupe was at a doctor’s appointment with his son. The countless tests and routine procedures would be a daunting task for the 96-year-old. Through all the standing up, sitting down, filling out paperwork and physical examinations, Lupe grew tired.
“They had me standing for an hour,” Lupe exclaimed exhaustedly as he sat slightly hunched in a chair as he waited for the doctor to return with his examination results.
“For an hour dad, but you are a Bushmaster.”
Upon hearing his son’s reminder, Lupe used the little remaining strength he had to sit up tall, shoulders back looking straight ahead. He knew that he was a Bushmaster and Bushmasters always stand tall.
Guadalupe “Lupe” Lopez died two days later, just months shy of his 97th birthday.
The Arizona National Guard’s 158th Infantry Battalion would be represented at Lupe’s services by the Battalion Command Sergeant Major James Denton.
“The experience of attending Guadalupe Lopez’s services was personal to me,” Denton said. “Throughout my service as a Bushmaster, and as I mentor other Bushmasters, I remind them that their actions and how they serve represent not only our unit today but all the Bushmasters that have come before them. Lupe’s service and sacrifice is immeasurable, and the legacy that he and all the other Bushmasters of the 158th’s history will never be forgotten. We train to the standards they set all those years ago which established the reputation of who we are today.”
Sept. 2, 2015, the Arizona National Guard and the 158th Infantry Battalion celebrated its 150th Birthday. Currently there are over 800 members of the 158th Bushmasters serving today and approximately 5200 members of the Arizona Army National Guard.
A heart in the right place
Lupe had lived a full life, he had served his country, raised his family, and after WWII he lived a life filled with peace and friendship. He had only expressed one disappointment about his military service and that was not having ever been awarded the Purple Heart after being wounded in combat.
The only independent proof that Lupe’s family possesses of his sacrifice and injuries sustained in combat is from a Bushmaster Association newsletter from spring 1991. Published in the newsletter is a list compiled by the late Col. Herbert B. Erb, who had served with the158th during WWII. Included in this list is the name Pfc. Guadalupe Lopez, noting him as being wounded in combat during operations in Sarmi, New Guinea.
Throughout Col. Erb’s life he compiled the list from research he had conducted from General Orders awarding the Purple Heart Medal issued by the 158th Headquarters, and combat casualty records from the 71st and 54th evacuation hospitals that had supported the 158th during their combat operations.
During combat, and not unlike many situations throughout WWII, injured service members were evacuated to rear area medical facilities and in some instances their names were not reported back to their parent unit.
To complicate matters, on July 12, 1973, a disastrous fire at the National Personnel Records Center destroyed approximately 16-18 million Official Military Personnel Files. This included 80 percent of the files for Army Service members who were discharged from service between Nov. 1, 1912, to Jan. 1, 1960. No duplicate copies of these records were ever maintained, nor were microfilm copies produced. Auxiliary records from the Department of Veterans Affairs have been used to reconstruct basic service information but most of the records are considered incomplete.
Col. Erb’s research showed that in official after action reports by the Commanding General of the 158th Regimental Combat Team and the Commanding Officer of the 158th Infantry there were 1,410 Bushmasters wounded in action. However there were only 1,368 official orders related to Bushmasters who were wounded in action.
The Purple Heart is awarded to members of the armed forces of the U.S. who are wounded by an instrument of war in the hands of the enemy and posthumously to the next of kin in the name of those who are killed in action or die of wounds received in action.
Lupe’s family has submitted a request to the National Archives for his complete service records in the hope that it will contain documentation substantial enough to petition the Army Board for Correction of Military Records to award Lupe a Purple Heart.
His family has no doubt that if Lupe is finally awarded his Purple Heart, as his family accepts the award in his honor, he will be there in spirit standing tall, just as Bushmasters always do.