Countless heroic tales have gone unrecognized from the periods of warfare which have formed part of the United States’ history. Many heroes would for several years be overlooked during considerations for awarding the Medal of Honor. This was attributed to a number of factors, one of which in some cases, unfortunately, was racism.
On the afternoon of March 18, 2014, some of these wrongs from the past were finally righted. Twenty-four Army veterans received the Medal of Honor, and among these heroes was Master Sergeant Manuel V. Mendoza.
Mendoza was 20 years old when he enlisted in the United States Army at Fort MacArthur, California in November 1942. Following this, the Hispanic American soldier would go on to serve in World War II.
Four months after D-Day, then-Staff Sergeant Mendoza single-handedly quenched a fierce German counterattack in a largely overlooked event of the war.
After a horrific battle, the 88th Infantry Division of the US Army had broken through the heavily fortified Gothic Line during the Americans’ northward advance through Italy. Elements of the 350th Infantry Regiment of the 88th Infantry Division proceeded to occupy Mount Battaglia, which surprisingly turned out to have not been already occupied by the Germans.
The mountain was a very important area, for at 2,400 feet it towered over the surrounding highlands by about 400 feet, making it a valuable bastion for whoever occupied it.
Why the Germans left the mountain unguarded was unknown. However, after the Americans had taken up their positions on Mount Battaglia, the Germans launched an aggressive counteroffensive.
They let loose a hellish rain of fire on the 350th Infantry Regiment as they desperately fought to take back the mountain. In the chaos, almost half of the regiment became casualties.
On 4 October 1944, a heavy barrage of German mortars struck the mountainside. It was a clash of determination: the Americans threw in all they had to stop the Germans from taking the mountain, and the Germans likewise hit as hard as they could in a valiant bid to reclaim the important landmark they had erroneously left unguarded.
As the casualties piled up, Mendoza, who was by then a platoon sergeant with Company B, got shot in his arm and leg.
Maybe the resulting pain fueled his fury, or maybe it was all just mindless bravery, but Mendoza, paying little or no mind to his wounds, took up a Thompson submachine gun and raced to the top of the hill. From the crest, he saw hundreds of enemy soldiers surging up the slopes.
The German soldiers were armed with machine pistols, rifles, hand grenades, and flamethrowers.
Seeing this, Mendoza immediately engaged them in a fierce firefight, spraying bullets down the slope at the enemy. He emptied about 5 clips, hitting ten soldiers.
When his ammunition ran out, he dumped the submachine gun, grabbed a carbine, and resumed his fierce engagement with the enemy. Again, he ran out of ammunition.
Somehow, one German soldier came within a few yards of the crest, wielding a flamethrower. Seeing that Mendoza had run out of bullets for his carbine, he rushed to eliminate the one-man squad on the crest. Mendoza snatched his pistol and was able to take the German down before he could fire the flamethrower.
The advancing forces continued up the ridge, determined to take it back.
Spotting an abandoned machine gun emplacement, Mendoza jumped into it. Another hail of bullets began, which the Germans were forced to try to dodge. They were still able to maintain their upward advance, however.
Seeing that the emplacement did not cover the entire enemy force, Mendoza lifted the machine gun off the ground and went mobile with it, holding it at hip level.
The oncoming enemies were served with an ear-splitting rattle of bullets pouring down on them, something they were particularly not hoping for, especially from just one man.
They scattered in different directions, giving Mendoza the opportunity to set the machine gun down and continue his deadly spraying until the machine gun jammed.
The Germans may have heaved a short sigh as they heard that last click, hoping that it was over and they could resume their advance.
But the worst had been saved for last.
As soon as the machine gun jammed, Mendoza grabbed several hand grenades and began hurling them at the soldiers. This was more than the Germans could take, and they began to hurriedly retreat.
After the German counterattack had ceased, Mendoza ran down the slope and captured one wounded soldier. He also retrieved several weapons left behind by the Germans as they scampered for safety.
Having secured the ridge, he moved on with all available men to help consolidate the Americans’ positions.
After the dramatic engagement between Mendoza and the Germans, 30 soldiers were found dead.
However, his heroism was acknowledged with the Distinguished Service Cross rather than the Medal of Honor.
After WWII, Mendoza continued his service with the Army, and was wounded during the Korean War.
He left the Army in 1953 and worked at Palo Verde Nuclear Generation Station until retirement. He died in 2001, at the age of 79.
Following a review of Distinguished Service Crosses awarded to Hispanic Americans and Jewish Americans, Mendoza’s heroic actions were finally properly recognized.
He was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously by President Barack Obama.