Army Pfc. Jose F. Valdez knew the odds were stacked against him when he volunteered to hold off 200 Germans so his fellow soldiers could escape an onslaught during World War II. The role cost him his life, but his bravery, tenacity and devotion to duty earned him a posthumous Medal of Honor.
Valdez was born on Jan. 3, 1925, in the small, northern New Mexico town of Gobernador. He was Mexican-American and came from a large family. According to the National Infantry Museum, his family moved in the early 1940s to Pleasant Grove, Utah, to help build the new Geneva Steel mill, which produced products to support World War II's shipbuilding industry.
In June 1944, Valdez decided he wanted to do more for the effort, so he joined the Army. He was assigned to the 3rd Infantry Division, which had already fought its way through North Africa and was working its way through Italy. By January 1945, Valdez had joined the division as it pushed its way into France and prepared to take back the Alsace region from German control.
On Jan. 25, the 20-year-old Valdez and five other soldiers from Company B, 7th Infantry Regiment, were on patrol duty near Rosenkrantz, France. They were about 500 yards beyond American lines when the Germans launched a counterattack.
As an enemy tank came into view about 75 yards away from them, Valdez raked it with automatic rifle fire until it backed off. Soon after, three enemy soldiers slowly started toward them through the woods and opened fire about 30 yards out. Valdez fired back at the Germans until he'd killed all three.
That was only the beginning, though. The Germans then launched two full companies of infantrymen in their direction, blasting the patrol with heavy gunfire. When it appeared that the Germans were planning to surround the patrol, their leader ordered the team to withdraw.
Sticking around was almost certainly a death sentence, but Valdez volunteered anyway so he could provide cover fire as his teammates fled, one by one, through a hail of enemy gunfire back toward American lines. Three of the soldiers were injured, but all of them made it back to safety.
Valdez was hit, too. The bullet went through his stomach and came out his back, paralyzing him from the waist down, according to an article in The Salt Lake Tribune.
He didn't quit, though.
Despite the intense pain, Valdez got himself together enough to continue firing from his position until all of the other members of the patrol were back behind friendly lines. While trying to stay conscious, he then used a field telephone to call for artillery and mortar fire to be dropped on the enemy. He corrected the firing range until shells were falling within 50 yards of his position.
Thanks to those actions, Valdez was able to hold off about 200 enemy soldiers for 15 minutes until they finally gave up and withdrew. The injured soldier then dragged himself back to American lines.
Valdez's wounds were too severe to survive. He died three weeks later, on Feb. 17, 1945 — less than three months before the end of the war in Europe.
His actions, however, made it possible for the rest of his comrades to escape, and they were directly responsible for pushing back a force that could have easily overwhelmed them. For that, he posthumously earned the Medal of Honor in February 1946. His mother accepted it on his behalf.
Valdez was buried with full military honors in New Mexico's Santa Fe National Cemetery, since he'd spent most of his life in the state. However, he's also considered the first Hispanic Utah resident to earn the Medal of Honor.
In the decades since his death, Valdez's sacrifice continues to be remembered. In 1947, a Navy ship was renamed the USNS Private Jose F. Valdez. In 1998, the National Guard building in Pleasant Grove, Utah, was renamed for him, while a highway in New Mexico was named in his honor in 2004. The National Infantry Museum's Hall of Valor also hosts a tribute to the fallen soldier.
This article is part of a weekly series called "Medal of Honor Monday" in which we highlight one of the more than 3,500 Medal of Honor recipients who have earned the U.S. military's highest medal for valor.