Few wartime images have captured the world’s attention quite like Joe Rosenthal’s photograph of six US Marines raising the American flag atop Mount Suribachi. It conveyed the indomitable fighting spirit of the Marines and the inevitable victory over the Empire of Japan. Five years later, an unknown photographer took a similarly moving image of a lone Marine leading his men over the seawall at Inchon during the Korean War. But fewer people know the story behind the inspiring photograph or how the figure seen hoisting himself out of a landing craft continues to inspire young military leaders.
First Lt. Baldomero López — the Marine immortalized in the famous photograph — served as a platoon commander in 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, during the famous Inchon landing. The assault effectively reversed the tide of the Korean War and liberated the South Korean capital of Seoul. The iconic picture captures López climbing over the seawall alone, beckoning his platoon to follow him into the fray. Moments later, López was killed in action.
López was a first-generation American, the son of Spanish and Italian immigrants. He enlisted in the Navy in 1943, earning a place at the United States Naval Academy the following year. López graduated in 1947 and accepted a commission as a Marine second lieutenant. After serving in Quantico with the Platoon Leaders Class, he deployed to China as a mortar section leader and later as a rifle platoon commander. But his actions immediately after the shutter closed at Inchon were what left a permanent mark on Marine Corps history.
Soon after the Marines disembarked, intense enemy fire pinned them down. López again moved in front of his Marines, this time toward an enemy bunker. While preparing to throw a hand grenade, López was shot several times in the chest and shoulder, causing him to drop the deadly device. He crawled toward the grenade but was too severely injured to pick it up and throw it. In his final moments, López chose to sacrifice his own life to protect his Marines. He swept the grenade under his body, absorbing the full impact of the explosion. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions.
The 25-year-old lieutenant’s legacy lives on at the United States Naval Academy 71 years later. The wall outside his old room in Bancroft Hall, room 3021, sports a bronze placard bearing his Medal of Honor citation. In 2007, the US Navy named a cargo ship after him. And just last year, Marine Maj. Thomas Schueman, a former professor at the Naval Academy, decided to further personalize the school’s connection to López’s legacy.
Each summer, the Naval Academy runs two training sessions in Quantico aptly called “Leatherneck.” The four-week event introduces roughly 500-600 midshipmen to life in the Marine Corps and evaluates the future officers on leadership ability, physical fitness, and military skills. After the culminating event, one midshipman is honored as the top performer. Last year, Schueman changed the name of that recognition to “The 1st Lt. Baldomero López Award.”
“Everything you need to know about leadership can be communicated in the famous image,” Schueman told Coffee or Die Magazine. “The midshipmen take four years of leadership classes, and I tell them they could cancel all those classes and just spend 20 minutes a day studying that image and they’ll know everything they need to know about leadership.”
Schueman believed so strongly in changing the name of the award that he purchased the photograph of López at Inchon and an accompanying plaque out of pocket for the first awardee: Midshipman Grace Werren, now a Marine second lieutenant.
“We can make it more than just conceptual when we talk about leadership,” Schueman said. “This is someone who sat in their seats. They have a duty to carry this Marine’s legacy forward. They owe it to him to be the best leader that they can be.”
López’s legacy lives on through new leaders like Werren. His decision to lead from the front in the face of mortal danger becomes even more remarkable after reading the words he wrote to his father the day before his death.
“Knowing that the profession of arms calls for many hardships and many risks, I feel that you all are now prepared for any eventuality,” López wrote with eerie foresight. “If you catch yourself starting to worry, just remember that no one forced me to accept my commission in the Marine Corps.”
López worked hard to become a Marine officer and sacrificed everything for the country his family chose as its home. Through his selfless actions at Inchon and the final photograph taken of him, López stands as a lasting example of an ideal combat leader.