John Wayne performed several acts of bravery above and beyond the call of duty in the Vietnam War epic, “The Green Berets.” This film accurately depicts how brutal and often isolated fighting conditions were for American soldiers who fought there. Yet, at the end of a combat scene, the director would shout, “Cut – that’s a wrap!.” The actors broke from character, and returned to the comfort of air-conditioned trailers; enjoying food from well-stocked buffets prevalent on movie locations.
On June 27, 1968, in the remote Vietnamese village of Moc Hoa, in the Mekong Delta, there was not a Hollywood director to shout, “Cut,” as one bullet ripped open the shoulder of Sgt.First Class Manuel T. Lopez, as another bullet smashed through his chest above his heart. He laid wounded and dying propped up against the knee of fellow Green Beret and friend, SFC Owen McDonald, as an Army medic performed a ‘cut and tie’ procedure on his artery to prevent SFC Lopez from bleeding to death.
McDonald remembers shouting at Manuel as his blood mixed in with the dirt and rain that began to pour, “Don’t you die on me Manny – help is on the way!” But the enemy rapid machine gun fire, B-40 rockets, and automatic weapons were so intense and accurate that SFC Lopez could not be moved safely to the Medvac copter hovering nearby. It was there in the arms of Green Beret Owen McDonald that SFC Manuel T. Lopez died.
“He was a damn good soldier and a damn good friend,” McDonald, now age 80 recalled with a lump in his throat. “I’ll probably have nightmares again tonight talking about that hell hole of a day in Moc Hoa – but that’s okay....cuz the story of Manny’s losing his life to save 14 soldiers that day is one that needs to be told.”
“Intelligence reports that day stated there was a contingent of roughly 50 Viet Cong secreted in the wood line of Moc Hoa. So, we performed a helicopter insert with 10 Green Berets, 5 interpreters, and 180 of civilian forces Manny had trained. Once on the ground, we found ourselves surrounded by at least 150 Viet Cong closing in on us with an L-shaped assault formation. Lickety-split – out of nowhere, we were on the receiving end of rapid machine gunfire, automatic weapons, and a barrage of B-40 rockets. It sounded like the Fourth of July times a hundred!”
“Even though we killed more of them that day than they did us.” McDonald continued, “very quickly two American soldiers and nearly 20 of the indigenous forces Manny had trained were wounded and lay dying alone in an isolated area of the wood line. Without an instant of hesitation, I watched in disbelief as Manny shed his gear- grabbed a radio and a rifle – and single-handedly directed our fire to clear a perimeter where the Medvac could land. He then ran into the wood line, and carried his wounded one-by-one to the Medvac. We gave him as much fire as we could. As soon as one wounded was safely aboard the Medvac, he would dash back into the wood line to recover another.”
“The concussion from one of the B-40 rockets knocked Manny out cold. When he regained consciousness, he was told by the medic, “We need to get you out of here.” “Sounds like a great idea,” Manny told the medic. As he was being walked to the Medvac, Manny broke away from his medical escort, grabbed his radio and rifle and bolted back into the wood line to rescue more wounded.
“I never saw anything like it,” Owen blurted out, the love for fellow Green Beret Lopez etched in his throat. “He single-handedly saved 14 soldiers that day: two Americans and 12 of the civilian troops he had trained. They all got to go home to their friends families. Manny went home to the Lord.”
A DULL KNOCKING ON THE DOOR
Manny and his wife Lucille were living in a small house on Fort Bragg with their five children where SFC Lopez was stationed before leaving for his first tour of duty in Vietnam. “It was 7 a.m. on a Sunday morning when I heard a dull knocking on the front door. I pulled back the curtain of the living room window to see who was standing at our door so early in the morning. I saw a somber faced Army officer holding papers, flanked by an Army Chaplain. In that instant I knew my husband was dead,” Mrs. Lopez recalled.
“I opened the door and once inside, the Army officer told me matter-of-factly my husband was killed in action. I burst into tears and fought to contain myself for the sake of the kids, who were still in bed.”
Steve Lopez, their eldest son, age 12 on that tragic day, was in bed when he heard that dull knocking on the front door. He began walking down the hallway and overheard the Army officer tell his mom that his dad was dead.
“My entire body went numb,” Lopez now 62 recalled. “I staggered back to bed and crawled underneath the sheets, crying softly so no one could hear me.”
Joey Lopez, the youngest child, age 4 at the time, ran into the living room.
“Until that moment, I had never heard my Mom crying before. I was told my father was killed in the war. I raced into Steve’s room and whispered, “Dad is dead.”
“I know Joey,” was Steve's responded.
Both boys laid together under the sheets – frozen with fear – worried about heir mom – trying to grasp never seeing their father again.”
“At his funeral,” Joey, 52, recalls with pride, “They gave our dad a 21gun salute, but the family still had not been told the circumstances surrounding his death or that his commanding officer, Col.Geraci, had submitted a formal application for SFC Lopez to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Manuel T. Lopez was born December 25, 1928 in Calallen, Texas. A Christmas baby. His parents, Jose and Guadalupe Lopez sold their ranch in Mexico and moved to Robstown. During the Depression, Jose opened a grocery store called, “El Dos De Avril.” According to Lucille, “The store went broke because Jose extended too much credit to too many customers. He could not bear to see friends and neighbors go hungry. Like father like son, he had a heart of gold.”
Manny’s mother died while giving birth when he was 3 years old. A few years later Jose remarried Emelia Sanchez.
“She was just downright mean to our dad,” Steve Lopez remarked. “She was always pressuring him to pick more cotton. It’s not that my dad disliked picking cotton – he hated it. So, whenever he resisted or complained about picking cotton, she would lay metal bottle caps on the kitchen floor and order him to kneel on the bottle caps without any covering for his knees Then again, you could argue that Emelia gave our dad his first taste of life as a Green Beret.”
It was around this time when Manny began to run away to his grandmother’s house in Robstown. At age 18, Manny was drafted into the Army.
“He told the draft board he wanted to go into the Navy,” Lucille remembers her husband reminiscing. 'Army!' was their swift reply. “Once in the Army, he sent his grandmother at least 15 dollars every month for the rest of her life. Family meant everything to my husband,” “He was gone a lot because of the war, but whenever he was home, he gave me and his kids his utmost and undivided attention. He loved taking me for rides in his Austin-Healy sports car and shooting arrows into bales of hay in the backyard with the boys. He was a very happy-go-lucky man around the house – a lot of fun to be with. He made sure we all went to church on Sunday, and he always carried a pocket prayer book with him at all times – especially on the battlefield. It was on him when he died - worn, tattered, but very well read.”
After his two year draft commitment with the Army ended, Manny hitch-hiked around the USA taking odd jobs; trying to figure out what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. This period of soul-searching made him realize how much he loved the Army. So, he went back home to Robstown and enlisted, Lucille said.
A WAR-TIME ROMANCE
Manny and Lucille met at her sister’s wedding. Manny was the best man to the groom, Sgt. Ed Bates. “After the ceremony the band began to play a polka, and Manny sauntered to where I was sitting, and asked me for the honor of a dance. I was astounded by what a good dancer he was. I love to dance and it was exhilarating having a partner who had no problem keeping up with me. He had a fun-loving personality; a charisma that drew me to him right away. During one of our slow dances, he said he had to return to Fort Bragg in the morning, and asked my permission to write me. Naturally, I gave my consent, and we began corresponding by mail for well over a year. We didn’t have Facebook back then, people actually took the time to sit down and write a letter. His letters to me were exactly as he was as a person: Upbeat, funny, loving, and very romantic. A year later, on New Year’s Eve, he visited me at my parents home in Osh Kosh, Wisconsin. That’s when he proposed. Of course, I said yes! Honestly, from our first dance, I knew he was the one for me. I know he felt the same way too.”
Once married on August 22, 1953, it was off to Fort Bragg. In the marital quarters, before we had our own home, there was an Airborne Jumper who was Special Forces. For the life of me, I cannot remember this gentleman’s name, but he was the one who encouraged Manny to apply for Special Forces. Military service was Manny’s passion. He quickly became part of the Special Forces Ski Patrol and a Master rated Parachutist. He was given so many awards by the Army, it’s hard to keep track.
AWARD WINNING SERVICE
The 15 military awards earned by SFC Manuel T. Lopez in his lifetime included:
Parachute Badge – Master
Expert Badge w/Carbine Bar, w/ Pistol Bar & Rifle Bar
Honorable Service Lapel Button, WW II
Republic of Vietnam Campaign Ribbon
Vietnam Service Medal
National Defense Service Medal w/ Bronze Service Star
World War II Victory Medal
Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal
Bronze Star Medal w/ Bronze Oak Leaf Cluster
Distinguished Service Cross
“Manny wasn’t motivated by winning awards. He was only ever motivated by helping others,” SFC Owen McDonald stated. “He always put the needs of his friends and his soldiers above his own. His actions that day in Moc Hoa, in my opinion, warranted the Congressional Medal of Honor, but once the big boys got a hold of the application in Washington, it was downgraded to a Distinguished Service Cross, which is the second highest award for bravery given by the military. It’s no small honor, I can tell you that.”
“Some folks have alleged that he didn’t receive the Congressional Medal of Honor because he was Hispanic. That’s nonsense,” McDonald declared. “Personally, I think it had more to do with the fact that the C.I.A. provided the money to pay the indigenous troops, and Moc Hoa is right on the border of Cambodia – too close to where we were not supposed to be. This was part of Nixon’s campaign of Vietnamization. In other words, train the locals to fight their own war, so we could withdraw from Vietnam with honor.”
A Congressional Medal of Honor recipient receives enormous media attention, and I don’t think the military brass wanted to draw attention to where we were and what we were doing, McDonald said.
“Yet, Manny’s heroism that day was so far and above the call of duty, they absolutely had to acknowledge it. So, they issued him the Distinguished Service Cross instead. Now, that’s just my opinion,” he said.
LUCILLE LEARNS OF HER HUSBAND’S HEROISM
About five months after the funeral of SFC Manuel T. Lopez, Lucille was summoned to Washington D.C. to accept the Distinguished Service Cross Award on her late husband’s behalf. This summons was the first she learned that her husband lost his life by saving 14 other lives. She accepted the award for her late husband from Brigadier General Edward M. Flannagan Jr., Commander of the John F. Kennedy Center for Special Warfare.
Nineteen sixty eight, the year Manuel T. Lopez was killed saving the lives of 14 other soldiers, was also the year of the most tumultuous anti-war this country had ever witnessed on the streets and college campuses across the United States.
“Hell, I reckon he felt they had a right to protest, but we never did talk much about politics or religion. Mostly all we ever talked about was getting our butts back home alive,” said McDonald. “I made it back home to my family – Manny didn’t. Why? I didn’t have the guts to do what he’d done that day in Moc Hoa. Fact is, I don’t know of anyone who does. SFC Manuel T. Lopez is the bravest human being I have ever encountered.
“He was a damn good soldier and a damn good friend,” he said. “After all these years, I miss him.”