Aztec World War II veteran reflects on military life and will to live
AZTEC — Ninety-two-year-old Arsenio "Archie" Lopez credits his longevity to a higher power, a good sense of humor and lots of healthy eating.
Lopez, a decorated World War II veteran, will spend Memorial Day at his home on McCoy Avenue with his wife, Genevieve Lopez. Like most days, he will rise early, get dressed and make coffee. But Monday, he said, he'll deviate from his routine long enough to take down the small American flag that he keeps flying over his porch steps year-round and replace it with a full-sized version and say a prayer of thanks.
"I thank my Lord and savior for all I have," Lopez said. "He's the only one who brought me through the war. You know, I wonder sometimes, 'How did I ever make it through everything?' Well, the Lord was right there with me. There's no other answer. He's the one who gives me the power and strength. That's probably how I am still around."
Born in Corona, N.M., Lopez's parents died when he was only four. His only sister was sent to an orphanage in Santa Fe and he to one in Albuquerque, which he hated, he said.
He volunteered for military service at 17, and slept in tents during basic training in San Antonio, Texas. At age 22, as an Army sergeant, he was in the second wave of soldiers who landed on Omaha Beach in Normandy, France, on D-Day, June 6, 1944. A good shot with a rifle, Lopez said he doesn't know how he managed to survive the amphibious landing, only that he was too busy each second after he landed on the beach.
"Everything is fair in love and war, kill or be killed, you know," Lopez said at his home on Wednesday. "Not much time to think anyway else. When you're in battle, your life is in jeopardy every second of the day and night. Six months of that, I thought, 'There's gotta be somebody taking care of you, brother.'"
He liked to box with fellow officers in the Army and said that his pugilistic attitude toward battle helped him face heavy attack, including clashes along the Siegfried Line, the roughly 400 miles of underground bunkers and forts built by Hitler to secure Germany against an attack from the west.
"The hardest part of the was breaking through the Siegfried Line. I don't ever remember being scared, but once you get in the mix, you get nervous," he said. "I was squad leader and one time they were shelling us pretty heavy. I could hear somebody crying and it was one of my replacements, so I knelt down in the foxhole and I asked him what was the matter. He told me, 'They're shooting at me,' telling me that over and over. I told him, 'No, they're shooting at everybody.' I told him to sit up with me and we talked some more. He was all right after that. You know, that kid became one of the best mortar gunners I ever had."
Lopez was wounded, nearly fatally, during the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium that December when shrapnel entered the back of his neck and shot out his chest. Doctors told him the shrapnel was an eighth of an inch from his brain stem, which if hit, would have killed him instantly.
"Before I got wounded, I was always jolly and carrying (on) with the boys but that day I knew I was going to get it," Lopez recalled. "One of our lieutenants said, 'Sergeant, there's something bothering you.' I just felt it. I knew I would get it on that day. And sure enough that day around four in the afternoon I did. The only thing that bothered me was that I didn't know how bad it was going to be. I made it through. I tell a lot of people that if the shrapnel would have gone in straight, I wouldn't be telling you about it now."
His Bronze Star medal, given to Lopez in 1962 for his "meritorious achievement in ground combat against the armed enemy during World War II," was stolen along with a dozen other medals and commendations, including a Purple Heart, from his sister's home in Roswell not long after he returned home to New Mexico. Lopez received replacements for them in 1992.
He moved to Aztec in the 1960s and worked around the county, doing construction and other work in the oil fields. He served as commander of the American Legion Post No. 9 in Aztec in the 1970s.
These days, Lopez spends most of his time tending to his 50-foot-long backyard garden, growing jalapeño and chile peppers, cucumbers, tomatoes, corn and canteloupe. He and his wife make their own salsa and he enjoys sharing the fruits of his labors in the garden with friends and his 21 grandchildren and 20 great-grandchildren.
"The only grandpa I ever knew, my mother's, he lived to be ninety-six," Lopez said. So I think I'll try to break his record."