On February 9, 1945, 21-year-old US Army Private Cleto L. Rodriguez rushed across smoking rubble and into withering Japanese gunfire on the island of Luzon in the Philippines. For nearly a week, he and his fellow soldiers from Company B, 2nd Battalion, 148th Infantry Regiment of the 37th Infantry Division battled to liberate the capital city from a determined enemy.
The American advance had pushed the Japanese back to the Paco District’s once-elegant railway station, situated on the broad Plaza Dilao. Three companies of die-hard Japanese marines were busily fortifying the building. Nearly invisible entrenched fighting positions dotted the area. Sandbag-lined pillboxes and bunkers protected well-armed and equipped defenders. Rodriguez’s platoon launched a frontal assault against the station across the wide expanse, but enemy fire pinned them down 100 yards from the building. Rodriguez developed a plan to save his platoon with Private First Class John N. Reese, Jr., a fellow 21-year-old automatic rifleman and full-blooded Cherokee from Pryor, Oklahoma. Living up to the words on their regimental patch, “WE’LL DO IT,” the two grabbed as many grenades and magazines for their Browning Automatic Rifles as they could carry and ran through enemy fire toward the train station.
Even in urban combat where dangers multiply, Rodriguez was not panicked. “I have never known fear,” he later claimed. At a young age he had become acquainted with hardship. Born in San Marcos, Texas in 1923, he lost his parents at only nine years old. Selling newspapers to support his family, he often slept in the San Antonio Express’s building so he could wake up early enough to deliver the papers before school. Rodriguez dropped out before graduating and joined a gang, leading to an aggressiveness that served him well after volunteering for the Army in March 1943 and joining the “Buckeye Division.”
Up against 300 enemy troops, the two Americans fired and maneuvered as a disciplined team. Clearing hostile positions as they went, the pair of BAR men patiently pushed to within 20 yards of the station’s main entrance. Without regard for his safety, Private Rodriguez destroyed a 20mm gun and machine gun from close range. After two-and-a-half hours, the two were out of grenades and had nearly burned through all their ammunition. With the help of Reese’s suppressive fire, Rodriguez made it back safely to friendly lines. The Oklahoman, however, fell to a sniper’s bullet while reloading. Both soldiers displayed exceptional bravery, resulting in 82 enemy troops killed. With the platoon from Company B no longer caught in a deadly position, the American advance continued. Rodriguez once again took the initiative only two days later, single-handedly killing six enemy soldiers and destroying a 20mm gun.
President Harry S. Truman presented newly promoted Technical Sergeant Rodriguez with the Congressional Medal of Honor, the first Mexican American in the Pacific theater of operations to receive the nation’s highest military award. One of the most decorated soldiers in the PTO, Rodriguez also received the Silver Star, Bronze Star, Purple Heart, and numerous other awards. For his bravery on February 9, Private Reese received the Medal of Honor posthumously. After the war, Technical Sergeant Rodriguez returned to San Antonio to a hero’s welcome. He left the Army in December 1945 and worked for the Veterans Administration, where he began a lifelong commitment to help fellow Hispanic Americans receive continuing education and skills training. In 1952, Rodriguez rejoined the service, initially with the US Air Force before transferring to the Army, retiring in 1970 as a master sergeant. On December 7, 1990, Rodriguez died at 67 years old. He is buried at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery in San Antonio, the final resting place of eleven other Medal of Honor recipients, six of whom are fellow WWII veterans.