Joe Baldonado of Gilroy finally got his Medal of Honor on Tuesday, 64 long years after he died saving his platoon in Korea, and only after a remarkable government admission that he had been denied the nation's highest military honor because he was Hispanic.
"That's the crime of it and why we're doing it now, to rectify the situation," said Joe's brother, Charles Baldonado, shortly after meeting President Barack Obama at a White House medal ceremony.
The disturbing "situation" involved more servicemen than Joe.
In 2002 Congress ordered the Pentagon to look into whether bigotry prevented Latino, Jewish and African-American veterans from receiving the medal.
The Pentagon has not released the results of its Medal of Honor review, but the White House announced last month that it would correct the injustices and award the medals to 24 veterans from World War II, Korea and Vietnam. They include Baldonado and 16 other Latinos, one African-American and one Jew. Only three are still alive.
Now 77 and a veteran himself, Charles lives in Southern California. He said no one has explained to him who denied his brother the Medal of Honor he was recommended for shortly after his death. Joe was instead granted a Distinguished Service Cross, the second highest military honor.
"An explanation would be nice," Charles said, "but I'm not going to dwell on it. I'm not going to look back, because he's being honored right now and that's the right thing to do. I'm very grateful."
Joe Baldonado was 17 when he enlisted in the Army in 1948. The migrant farmworker family had moved to Gilroy about 1943 after living in Los Angeles and Colorado, where Joe was born. The Baldonado boys picked garlic in Gilroy and fruits in Morgan Hill. Charles said his older brother enlisted for a common reason many young, working-class men still enlist today.
"He told me he was going into the Army to get some money to buy our mother a house," said Charles, who was 13 when Joe enlisted. "That was the Mexican way. Little did he know it would cost him his life."
On Nov. 25, 1950, Cpl. Baldonado and the 2nd Platoon, Company B, of the 187th Airborne Infantry Regimental Combat Team were sitting on Hill 171 near Kang-Dong when North Korean regulars launched a strong counterattack to seize the hill.
After the platoon used up most of its ammunition repelling the first waves, the platoon leader ordered his third squad to a defensive position. Baldonado, a machine-gunner in the squad, placed his weapon in an exposed position.
According to military reports and historians, he delivered a "withering stream of fire" on the enemy, forcing the attack back again and again. Charles said his brother fired his gun from 4 a.m. to 7 a.m. Finally, the enemy stormed his lone position, killing him instantly with a grenade.
Joe was only 20 and had never married or fathered children.
"The guys that he saved, well, they had children and grandchildren," Charles said. "In all honesty, I can say that they are his children and grandchildren, too."
At the beginning of Tuesday afternoon's ceremony in Washington, Obama said, "This is going to be a long ceremony because we're going to name every name."
Obama said that of all the honorees, Baldonado was the only one whose body was never recovered.
"All they saw was a bunch of dead enemy," Charles said.
The 24 Medals of Honor awarded Tuesday totaled the highest number granted in one ceremony since World War II. Officially, Baldonado's cross was upgraded to the medal.
Ironically, Gilroy City Hall and the local veterans' hall did not have any record of Cpl. Baldonado. The city's only other Medal of Honor winner was Capt. Reginald Benjamin Desiderio. He also was killed in the Korean War -- only two days after Baldonado's death.
Charles Baldonado said the family received Joe's Distinguished Service Cross at a ceremony at Fort Ord in Monterey in 1950, enough to get him on Gilroy's radar at the time. Maybe the oversight was due to Joe's enlisting only a few years after the family moved there, or because of another reason similar to what the Pentagon might explain later.
"You know, it's because of who we were -- Mexicans, " Charles said. "But that was then and this is now. I'm not going to dwell on the past."
Gilroy spokesman Joe Kline offered another explanation, that migrant families moved around a lot and often weren't listed as city residents. However, he said modern Gilroy would be proud to add Joe Baldonado's name to the city's annual ceremony honoring local veterans.
"I'm excited about this," Kline said on hearing about Baldonado's Gilroy connection. "I guess everybody will want to claim him as a favorite son now."
Charles said he still keeps a few of Joe's old photographs and his five or six other medals on a wall at home in Apple Valley.
"Every day I pass that wall and every day he comes into my mind," he said, just before taking his seat at the White House ceremony. "It's been a very, very long time. I feel great!"
Contact Joe Rodriguez at 408-920-5767 and follow him on Twitter.com/joerodmercury.