Commentary: Utah’s only Latino recipient of the Medal of Honor held off 200 Nazis — and died just months before the end of the war

Private First Class Jose F. Valdez

This Memorial Day, let us recall the sacrifice of Private First Class Jose F. Valdez. Let us recall it not because he is one of only six Utahn Congressional Medal of Honor recipients, nor because he remains Utah’s only Latino recipient. Let us recall it because, as Americans, we must.

On Jan. 25, 1945, Valdez was part of a patrol of six GIs on outpost duty in the vicinity of Rosenkrantz, France. The GIs were members of Company B, 7th Infantry, 3rd Infantry Division. They were about 500 yards beyond American lines.

Valdez had enlisted at a recruiting station in Pleasant Grove, Utah, in 1944, at the age of 19. Like the other men in the group, he had seen the world change greatly in his short life.

Two decades of fascist rhetoric, fearmongering, xenophobia and the conflating of nationalism with patriotism had led to a conflagration in Europe and Asia that had extended to America and engulfed the world.

On this cold, snowy day, which was to be one of his last upon the Earth, Valdez was three weeks past his 20th birthday.

By all accounts he was a capable, reliable soldier — one who was always there for his comrades. At a 2002 commemoration for Valdez, Abundio Castro, who served with Company B, described him as “a soldier you would want to be in your outfit.”

“He was the type of fellow to stay awake all night, guarding,” Castro said. “That keeps up the morale of the rest of the troops in the front line [because] your life is at stake.”

Valdez and the other GIs advanced toward a line of woods. As one of the soldiers recounted the story later, a rabbit broke from the woods, then a deer. Then there emerged a German tank, about 75 yards away.

Of the six GIs, it was the quiet, alert Valdez who engaged it, raking the tank with automatic fire until it withdrew.

When three Nazi scouts approached stealthily through the woods, it was again Valdez who detected and engaged them. From a distance of about 30 yards the men exchanged murderous bursts of gunfire. Valdez killed all three.

But now two infantry companies of Nazi soldiers were zeroing in on the six GIs, focusing an intense barrage of automatic and rifle fire at the patrol.

Crucially, the enemy seemed to be pursuing an encircling movement. Valdez’s platoon leader ordered a withdrawal.

It was Valdez who volunteered to provide covering fire for the retreat. He fired burst after burst as the patrol members dashed to safety. Although three were wounded in their escape, all managed to return to American lines.

However, while providing this cover, Valdez was hit. A bullet ripped through his abdomen and exited his back, paralyzing him from the waist down.

Somehow Valdez summoned the strength to maintain focus, calling by field telephone for mortar and artillery fire. Weakened by blood loss and fighting to remain conscious, he revised coordinates until American artillery shells were delivered to within 50 yards of him, halting the Nazi advance.

Valdez’s Medal of Honor citation states that he held off 200 of the enemy for 15 minutes, breaking up the Nazi counterattack, before dragging himself back to American lines.

He died of his wounds three weeks later, only a few months before the end of the war in Europe.

At the 70th-anniversary observance of the death of Valdez, Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes said, “My hope … is that through the example of people like PFC Valdez … we will continue to be the great light of this world that we have always been.”

In a time of violent rallies, of literal and metaphorical walls, of torches and racist chants and the freshly spun notion that we are not a nation of immigrants, let us recall that Jose F. Valdez laid down his young and unlived life not just for his friends, but for the great light of this world that Reyes spoke of.

This Memorial Day, recall the sacrifice of Private First Class Jose F. Valdez and all who died for democracy. Recall not just what they fought for, but what they fought against.

Because even the greatest of lights can flicker out.

David M. Thomas is a former military history researcher for the Kentucky Department of Military Affairs and a career editor and writer who lives in Monterey, Calif.