Due in part to the well-known HBO miniseries Band of Brothers, which profiled the 506th Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division, the accomplishments and bravery of World War II paratroopers are well known. And deservedly so—I can’t imagine hurling myself out of a plane under the best of conditions, let alone while dodging enemy bullets and hauling massive amounts of gear. However, the focus on the 101st has meant that paratrooper units have become synonymous with the European Theater—but paratrooper units also served in the Pacific Theater.
To shine a light on one of these units—the 503rd Parachute Regimental Combat Team—and to commemorate Hispanic Heritage Month, I wanted to profile the Veterans History Project (VHP) collection of Anthony D. Lopez. Enlisting in the Army in March 1943, immediately following his high school graduation, Lopez went through basic training at Camp Roberts, California, and then volunteered to join the paratroopers. Though a burst appendix caused him to miss the first jump made by the 503rd—in Lae, New Guinea—he soon caught up to the unit, just in time to take part in an airborne landing on the island of Noemfoor, in New Guinea:
Noemfoor was a real tough—a hard jump because the island itself was all nothing but a big mud hole. But underneath the mud, you find nothing but coral. So you hit the ground and you expect to land soft and you’re really landing on coral rock.
Following Noemfoor, Lopez and the 503rd went on to the islands of Leyte, Mindoro, and Corregidor, weathering some of the fiercest battles of the war. On Corregidor, they surprised the enemy troops, who believed it was impossible to jump parachute troops onto such a rocky high peak. Lopez engaged in hand-to-hand combat and was wounded while rescuing a fellow GI, an action for which he received the Bronze Star. In August 1945, he was wrapping up six months on Negros, in the Philippine Islands; his collection includes photographs of Japanese soldiers surrendering at the end of the war (please note the presence of graphic content within the photographs). Throughout his time in the Philippines, Lopez employed his Spanish language skills to communicate with the Filipino natives.
Echoing the modern-day miniseries about paratroopers, Lopez said of his unit, “It was one big brotherhood, and we all stuck together.” Review other digitized collections from the 503rd Parachute Regimental Combat team here. For more stories from Hispanic veterans, please see our previous Experiencing War web feature: Hispanics in Service.