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East Chicago Medal of Honor recipient Emilio De La Garza sacrificed himself, lives on in memory

Medal of Honor (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

East Chicago native Emilio Albert De La Garza enlisted in the Marine Corps during the Vietnam War after graduating from Washington High School in Indiana Harbor and working for a while at Inland Steel.

Just a week after seeing his wife and daughter on leave in Hawaii, De La Garza made the ultimate sacrifice, jumping on a grenade when out of patrol to save his platoon mates. He earned the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest honor.

De La Garza, a Mexican-American and the son of a World War II veteran, was killed in action April 11, 1970, in Da Nang, Vietnam.

“He requested to go out into combat,” said Rey Robles with the Northwest Indiana chapter of the Marine Corps League. “He wanted to go into the heat of the battle, into the middle of the action. He paid the ultimate price.”

Local veterans like Robles hope to keep De La Garza’s memory alive on the 53rd anniversary of his death. The Marine Corps League-Howlin’ Mad Detachment 93 in Merrillville recently named its shelter in honor of De La Garza, installing a plaque with the citation that outlined his heroism above the call of duty in the war.

“It’s important that we continue to bring up his story and sacrifice,” Robles said. “He left a legacy. He inspired others. It can never be forgotten who he was or what he did.”

His widow and high school sweetheart, Rosemary Gonzalez, said he was a humble person who would have shied away from all the adulation he received after his death. Other than the Meal of Honor, his many citations included a Bronze Star, Purple Heart, Navy Presidential Unit Citation and the Republic of Vietnam Meritorious Unit Citation with a Gallantry Cross.

He was cited for the Medal of Honor for “conspicuous gallantry.”

“He didn’t like to show off,” she said. “He was just a regular guy.”

They met in high school and started dating, hanging out on street corners and talking after school.

“Sometimes his dad would lend him his car and we’d go to a movie in downtown Hammond,” he said. “It was a simpler life. We didn’t have a lot of money. We would just hang out.”

They would walk up and down Main Street in Indiana Harbor and he would ask her which piece of jewelry she liked at Albert’s Jewelry on Main Street. She fancied a blue sapphire ring that cost $50, which was a lot at the time.

“It was simple, not extravagant,” she said. “We would go back and look at the ring and eventually he got it for me at Christmas or for my birthday. He worked a part-time job at a grocery store and saved up enough to buy me the ring outright.”

They eventually had a daughter, Renee De La Garza-Lugo, and married.

Like many draft-age young men of that era, he enlisted in the military while war raged overseas in Vietnam.

“We married a week before he shipped to Vietnam,” she said. “He never made it home.”

She didn’t see him until he went on leave in Hawaii in 1970 near the end of his deployment.

“There were a lot of young women on that plane going to see their husbands,” she said. “We stayed at a nice hotel, saw all the sights and got luaus. It was just like a regular vacation with no discussion of what he was doing in the jungle. The week went by really fast. Before I knew it, they came and knocked on my door to tell me he was dead.”

Shortly after she was notified of his death, flowers he arranged to send her arrived for her birthday.

“I was 20 years old and didn’t understand how that could happen. I was trying to figure it out. I thought I was too young to go through this. I was trying to figure out the whole Vietnam War. I couldn’t understand why we were there. I knew a lot of guys went to Canada.”

Gonzalez said she didn’t fully appreciate what he had been through until seeing the Oliver Stone movie “Platoon.” A lot of people she knew in similar positions didn’t want to see it, but she was anxious to learn more about what he went through over there.

“It just hit me what they were doing out there and how they were living out there,” she said. “There were a lot of newsreels about bombings in Vietnam at the time, but you were sitting in a living room in a nice home on a couch wondering how real that was. It wasn’t until the movie came out that it dawned on me what the jungle environment and horrible conditions were like. It was always strange and weird to me that was he fighting in the jungle and then they sent him to Hawaii for a lavish little vacation and then sent him back.”

His life cut short in combat, De La Garza only got to see his daughter when she was too young to remember what he was like.

“She was a baby,” Gonzalez said. “All she knows of her dad is the pictures, usually in his Marines uniform. Cameras were rare then. In middle school, she was asked to do a report on somebody famous and did a report on him. She was a baby, just a year and a half when he died. It was so long ago now.”

Many have strived to keep his memory alive. United Steelworkers Local 1010 in Hessville has a plaque honoring him and always remembers him in its annual calendar. His picture hangs by the door at the East Chicago Main Branch Public Library in Indiana Harbor.

She and her daughter mark the anniversary of his death at the cemetery.

“It’s quiet,” she said. “It’s just a quiet day to reminisce.”

Washington High School classmate Julio Arevalo Sr., who also served in Vietnam, took shop class with De La Garza.

“He was a nice guy, a good-looking guy,” he said. “He was quiet and sincere. He spoke to everybody with respect.”

De La Garza wrestled in high school, graduating in 1967.

Arevalo found out around the time he was enlisting that De La Garza was killed in Vietnam.

“I was shocked, as were many other guys,” he said. “You never think anything like this would happen.”

De La Garza served as a lance corporal for Company E, 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division. His platoon was out on a night patrol when De La Garza, his platoon commander and another Marine went off to search for two Vietcong soldiers who fled toward a small pond. They cornered one of the enemy soldiers in the reeds and brush, but De La Garza saw him pull a pin on a grenade, shouted out a warning and jumped on the grenade, shielding his platoonmates from the blast and saving their lives at the expense of his own.

“That’s the kind of person he was,” Arevalo said. “He believed in leaving no soldier behind.”

Arevalo is concerned about preserving the memory of De La Garza and his valor on the battlefield. American Legion Post 508 was named in his honor, but it burned down long ago. The East Chicago Career Center was named for him for years, with a bust of him on the second floor, but now it’s just known as Ivy Tech Lake County Campus at East Chicago.

“Kids don’t know about him. He’s been taken for granted. It’s sad,” he said. “He’s someone from East Chicago, Indiana, who made the ultimate sacrifice. He’s a Mexican-American from the melting pot of East Chicago who gave his life so others could have a free life. It’s something that shouldn’t be forgotten. He shouldn’t be a small notation in the back of a history book.”

About a decade ago, local veterans rescued a white headstone resembling those in Arlington National Cemetery that the federal government awarded to De La Garza when he received the Medal of Honor. It had been inadvertently stored in the greenhouse in Washington Park in East Chicago; they arranged to have it finally placed by his grave at the St. John-St. Joseph Catholic Cemetery in Hammond.

“It sat in the original crate for 42 years,” Robles said. “When we found out about it, we were kind of stunned nobody knew about it and went on a mission to ensure that he was properly honored. It took a lot of hard work getting letters out and getting OKs from the park department, family and cemetery, but we felt like justice was done when we finally got him what he earned and deserved. It’s just sad it took so long for that to happen.”

Robles also went to Washington High School with De La Gazra, recalling that he was quiet, respected and sang in the glee club.

“The Marines are different from other branches in that you’re a rifleman first and everything else second,” he said. “He was a grunt. That was his first primary duty. He carried an M60 machine gun.”

Robles said he was always impressed with De La Garza’s extraordinary bravery in the war.

Few would be that courageous in those circumstances, and only a fraction of service members in American history have ever received the Medal of Honor, Robles said.

“No matter how many years go by, no matter how much time has passed, we have to remember what he did and remember what he sacrificed,” he said. “I think his story shows that no matter where you come from you can make a difference. It’s about who you are and how you conduct yourself.

“He came from a hard-working town in the Harbor where people looked out for each other and that instilled something in him and made him the man he was. We must never forget him.”


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