On this day in 1945, a U.S. soldier charges not just one, but six enemy positions. Staff Sergeant Ysmael Villegas was then just one day shy of his 21st birthday. Unfortunately, he would be killed before he could celebrate the milestone.
The man that was known as “Smiley” to his family and friends would be posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor in October 1945.
Villegas’s heroic action came during the campaign to drive the Japanese out of the Philippine Islands. His division had been tasked with securing an important mountain pass on the island of Luzon: the Villa Verde Trail.
On March 20, Villegas’s unit was trying to obtain control of a particular vantage point along that trail, but the area was covered with a series of connected caves and foxholes. The enemy was hunkered down in their hiding places, hurling grenades and demolition charges at the approaching Americans.
Villegas was undeterred. His Medal citation describes the manner in which he moved among his comrades, bolstering their spirits and encouraging them to continue on in the face of intense fire. But it was at the crest of a hill that Villegas really swung into action.
“Running like a football player,” First Lieutenant William A. Newburn later reported, “[Villegas] charged the first Japanese and killed him with his rifle. All the enemy weapons were brought to bear on him. The bullets caused dirt to spurt up at his feet. He whirled and headed for another foxhole, stood over it, killed the Japanese rifleman, and then headed for another.”
Villegas rushed foxhole after foxhole. His Medal citation describes bullets that “missed him by inches.” He assaulted five foxholes, each time “destroying the enemy within.”
The Japanese must have been dumbfounded as they watched the crazy American run among their bullets, attacking them again and again?! They weren’t able to get him until he ran for a sixth foxhole. Only then was he finally hit and killed. Newburn concluded that Villegas “had allowed every Jap on that hill a chance to get a bead on him. He went down in a tornado of fire.”
The Japanese might have taken Villegas down, but they lost the battle in that moment. His men were overcome with fury. “The men were so incensed at his death,” First Lieutenant William D. Zahniser described, “they charged the position and couldn’t be stopped.”
Indeed, his men went on to attack with such determination, Villegas’s Medal citation concludes, that they “swept the enemy from the field.”
Villegas not only inspired his men that day, but he also left behind a legacy that has continued to inspire future generations. Perhaps his greatest impact has been in his hometown of Casa Blanca, California. Just a few years ago, the community came together to celebrate what would have been his 90th birthday. A student from Villegas Middle School was chosen to read an essay in tribute to the local hero.
“What courage means to me is to be brave,” the sixth-grader said, “to have the ability to do something that frightens one. Like Mr. Villegas who had the courage to go on the battlefield to protect America. He is a perfect example for us to understand the word courage.”
Yes, he is. But he is the perfect example of something else, too: A hero whose selflessness inspires generations to come.
Medal of Honor citation (Ysmael R. Villegas)
Pablo Villa, This Month in History: March 20, 1945 — Charging foxholes on the Villa Verde Trail (NCO Journal; March 26, 2015)
Raul Morin, Among the Valiant: Mexican-Americans in WWII and Korea (1963)
Stephen Wall, Riverside: Medal of Honor Recipient Honored (Press-Enterprise; March 15, 2014)