AMERICAN TROOPS came home from World War II to cheers, from Vietnam to derision. But those who returned from Korea were often simply ignored.
The Korean Conflict--the situation was too politically complicated to call it a war, even though that's precisely what it was--lasted from June of 1950 to July of 1953. Precisely 33,629 Americans were killed before the fighting ended in stalemate, with the border between the two Koreas in about the same place it had been before the shooting commenced. Had the U.S. been able to do that in Vietnam, where more Americans died over a much longer time, we'd have called it a stunning victory. But Korea was a different time, a different place.
The first year was a war of motion. The North Koreans drove the Americans and South Koreans into a small pocket in the southeast around the port of Pusan. After an amphibious landing behind the North Koreans, U.N. forces advanced in some places to the Chinese border. The effort was ultimately joined by a dozen nations, but Americans and South Koreans did most of the fighting.
Then came massive Chinese intervention and the push back into South Korea, and the counter-push to approximately the current border. Seoul, the capital of South Korea, changed hands four times in less than a year before the conflict settled into a brutal holding operation while the players hammered out a truce which still stands, on a border that still heats up occasionally.
TUCSONANS, PARTICULARLY the 258 active officers and men of E ("Easy") Company, contributed disproportionately to the Marine Corps effort in the Korean Conflict.
Formed in 1947 around a core of World War II vets, it was the 13th Infantry USMCR, the local Marine Reserve unit. The other members of Easy Company were mostly kids, many still in high school. The outfit was heavily Hispanic--about 80 percent. They came from Barrio Anita and Barrio Crouger, Barrio El Hoyo and Barrio Hollywood, barrios Libre, Milville and Pascua, and the farms and ranches that still dotted Tucson's outskirts.
And some were Native Americans. Sgt. Johnson McAfee, from Continental, was a Pima who'd fought in the South Pacific. An inactive member of E Company, he showed up when the unit was mobilized. McAfee was killed in action November 28, 1950.
The survivors of Easy Company can tell you what it was like to grow up in Tucson in the '30s and '40s, when the Santa Cruz still had water in it most of the year.
"Tucson's economy wasn't good after World War II," says Sam Borozan, who, with his late brother Mike, was recruited from Tucson High. "Davis-Monthan Air Force Base was just a few guys parking B-29s--it wasn't used for anything else then. Jobs were tight, and we got four days' pay for two drills a month, along with full pay for two weeks of summer camp. A lot of guys signed up for the underwear and the shoes." The few really good jobs were with government or the Southern Pacific Railroad.
Sam's other brother, George, who participated in 38 combat missions over Korea as an Air Force B-29 crew chief, reminds us that their generation of American males had something called a "military obligation"--at least two years of active duty or a six-year hitch in the Reserves or National Guard. But there was something else--pride and patriotism were more powerful motivating forces back then. Those green USMC T-shirts were a badge of honor at Tucson High.
And that patriotism showed in July 1950, when Easy Company was called up and sent to Camp Pendleton, California. Many of the men could have sought deferments, while others were under age and could have ducked. Almost none did.
MARINE BRASS immediately broke up E Company and used it as a replacement pool to fill in other outfits.
After the heavy casualties taken in the Philippines early in World War II by National Guard groups--the New Mexico unit was a big portion of the Bataan Death March--U.S. military planners shied away from committing troops from one geographic area as a unit.
There were also too many members of the same family too close together. Besides the Borozans, Easy Company had at least six other pairs of brothers--including three named Cocio--and many cousins. The problem of committing brothers was driven home by the loss of all five Sullivan boys aboard the USS Juneau in 1942. And the Arizona National Guard--the famous Bushmasters--contributed multiple Gold Stars to too many Arizona mothers. The recent film Saving Private Ryan was based on the problem.
Unfortunately, the policy makers also hadn't done much in the way of adequate training. Most of E Company hadn't even been to Boot Camp, and many learned how to fire and take their weapons apart on the ship to Korea.
"They lined us up and asked who had been to two summer camps," recalls Gilbert "Niggie" Romero. "I thought that meant we were going to get some training--after a few weeks I was on a troopship headed for the Inchon landing."
Harold Don was a machine-gunner who learned how to strip his weapon on the same trip and first fired it in combat. Raul Reyes practiced with his newly issued bazooka by aiming at flying fish, which he tried to imagine were tanks.
Those who had recently joined or who had gone inactive were sometimes sent to basic training and were part of later replacement groups. There were about 60 more members of E Company on the inactive roster. But the Marine Corps was so short of people that it took reservists just to fill out the regiments of the Korea-bound First Division.
The Army was in worse shape--many outfits consisted of about one-third untrained Korean draftees, often literally pulled off the streets, who couldn't speak English.
Easy Company men were scattered throughout the First Marine Division. Romero, with nine others, was sent to Able Company, First Battalion, First Regiment--"1-1-1." His company commander, Capt. Robert H. Barrow, was later a four-star general and the Commandant of the Marine Corps. Don drew the same battalion's Heavy Weapons Company. Others went to the Fifth and Seventh Infantry regiments and the Eleventh Artillery; still others found themselves in supply and transportation units.
And some never got to Korea at all. While his little brother Mike spent a year with the First Transportation Battalion on raging battlefields from Inchon and Seoul to the Chosin Reservoir and the hard fighting in the South that came after, Sam Borozan was a cook who never got farther than Hawaii. Another E Company veteran, who, like Mike Borozan, later became a Tucson city councilman was Rudy Castro. A star athlete, Castro spent his hitch playing baseball.
Retired State Appellate Court Judge Mike Lacagnina was 17 when he was called up. "At Pendleton, they asked who could type. Four of us put up our hands, so I was used as a clerk--something badly needed then. Later, when the publicity hit over under-age Marines being killed in Korea, they sent me to basic training. I guess I did well on too many tests, because I got further training and ended up in the Marine Air Wing stationed in California until I was discharged in 1952."
Lacagnina's dad was a barber with a shop on Tucson Boulevard. There was another barber on Campbell Avenue whose son wasn't so lucky. PFC Corbett Robertson, 19, died of wounds received in the Inchon landing. He was the first member of E Company to be killed in action.
It was luck of the draw and those who drew better cards are not looked down upon today by their former comrades.
TO THIS day, nobody knows what happened to all the members of Easy Company. They came home, they went back to work, married, raised families, and some went to school under the GI Bill. Some never returned to Tucson, others have moved away. Still others stayed in the Marine Corps, where two--1st Lt. Gilbert Urias and Sgt. Herbert Oxnam Jr.--retired as colonels.
Sixteen-year-old PFC Juan Alvarez served for 20 years and commanded a company in one of his three Vietnam tours, eventually retiring as a captain. Others who stayed in the Corps and served in Vietnam include Arnulfo "Nufi" Borboa, Ruben Carillo and Robert L. Castro. There were, no doubt, more.
Many others rejoined the reconstituted reserve unit and would've seen another war if the decision had been made to call up reserve units again.
Some Easy Company vets became high-level civil servants, like the first president of the Tucson Marine Corps League (MCL), the late Tom Price, who was Tucson's politically powerful city operations director. Eduardo Lovio became a battalion fire chief, Corpsman Jimmy Fisher was a school principal.
Today, about 60 are known to have died; another 60 or so are members of The Tucson Marine Corps League; and about 40 more live here but apparently choose not to participate in the League or other activities Some of those men don't want to talk about what they went through.
Twelve were killed in action--and the knowledge of that 12th KIA was only recently discovered by E Company survivors. On March 26, 1953, PFC Alfonso Lopez, who had finished his first hitch and then re-enlisted, was one of 41 Marines overrun by two Chinese battalions in the four-hour battle for Outpost Reno. He's still officially listed as MIA.
The men of Easy Company earned at least eight Silver Stars, six Bronze Stars, two Letters of Commendation, and more than 40 Purple Hearts. Martiriano Ramirez got his 44 years later. Easy Company's commanding officer, Captain Morse Holladay, earned the Navy Cross--the highest award below the Medal of Honor. He later rose to command 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines. Many other medals were no doubt earned but not reported.
The Tucson Chapter of the MCL, while not limited to Easy Company vets, was born out of their first reunion, which occurred in 1970. One of the guiding forces behind it was the late Tom Price, for whom the MCL Post on 29th Street is named.
FOR A long time Ruben Moreno didn't want to talk about his Marine Corps experience. A few years ago, he changed his mind. "What we did is an important part of our history and Tucson's heritage," he says now. "The stories need to be recorded."
Moreno had already performed his military obligation by serving in the U.S. Navy. He was recruited into Easy Company after his discharge and became a machine-gunner in D Company, 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines, where he saw about as much action as any anyone--from Inchon through Seoul to Chosin and back to the South and North again in the Spring of 1951. Two of those Bronze Stars are his.
Today, Moreno is the unit historian for E Company. He's collected a number of oral histories of Easy Company members and a wealth of other material; his tapes are on file with the Arizona Historical Society, and he's published two booklets containing 18 stories, with a third in preparation. Many of the facts in this article come from those interviews.
One story not contained in those booklets is Moreno's own. The citation for his second Bronze Star tells us that when his unit was moving between two ridges, they were hit by well dug-in Chinese troops. A number of Marines were hit, including the lieutenant in command. Several wounded Marines were lying in the open, and the Chinese were ready to pick off any rescuers. Moreno turned his machine gun over to his assistant and went to a badly wounded Marine, who told him to leave him and save himself. Ignoring him, Moreno lay on his belly to let the wounded man crawl onto his back. He then carried him to safety--uphill and under fire. Moreno soon took command of the unit and held the position until they were relieved and ordered back.
"Heroism" is a relative term, apparently--in other wars, Moreno's singular act of courage would have drawn at least a Silver Star. In the Gulf War Moreno might've gotten the Medal of Honor.
But he's equally proud of his first Bronze Star, won outside of Seoul. That one was signed off by the man who pinned it on him, the colonel commanding the lst Marine Regiment, the legendary Lewis B. "Chesty" Puller.
To those who don't know of him, it's hard to explain that a Chesty Puller actually existed. That he and George Patton had some mutual ancestors serve--and die--with the Confederacy at Gettysburg gives a hint. That he was the most decorated Marine in history--52 times, including five Navy Crosses, some garnered in Haiti and Nicaragua between the big wars, and during World War II as a battalion commander at Guadalcanal, Saipan and Pelelieu--tells us much more. One Puller story has him responding to the news that his regiment was completely surrounded by Chinese troops with the line, "Good. Now we can shoot in every direction." Another expanded version includes: "Those poor bastards. They've got us just where we want them."
The Puller legend has bred so many stories that some have to be embellishments. But Moreno can confirm one oft-told Puller tale first hand:
THE 2ND Battalion was under a North Korean tank attack outside of Seoul, where Moreno got that first Bronze Star. General Douglas MacArthur had come forward to award Puller another Silver Star. An aide to the General was looking for Puller, and found him on top of a hill, up front and in the thick of the fight, as always. The aide told Puller the General wanted to see him. Puller told the aide he was busy, and if the General wanted him, he could come up the hill.
MacArthur, to his credit, did. He gave Puller his medal, which went in a cigar box with all the others. Many Easy Company veterans are proud to have served under Chesty Puller, particularly those who fought around the Chosin Reservoir.
One of the finest stories of courage and determination in the history of both the Marine Corps and the United States is the fabled fighting retreat of X Corps from North Korea. X Corps consisted of the lst Marine Division, the 3rd and 7th U.S. Infantry Divisions, and two ROK (South Korean) divisions, along with a small British force.
After the Inchon landing, they'd been moved to the east side of North Korea and were separated from the rest of the U.N. forces by more than 100 miles of cold, barren wilderness. They were advancing over a wide front, in pursuit of what was believed by the allied high command to be the remnants of the North Korean forces supplemented by a few thousand Chinese volunteers. Allied intelligence had failed to notice four Chinese field armies in X Corps' section alone.
The First Marine Division, along with some Army outfits, was stretched out along more than 50 miles of miserable road, 60 miles inland from the coastal supply bases at Hamhung and Hungnan, when the Chinese got into the war in a big way. The Fifth and Seventh Regiments were on the west side of the Chosin Reservoir--Changjin in Korean, but it will always be known to those who were there by the name it carried on the incomplete Japanese maps used by American troops. The First Regiment was holding Koto-ri 10 miles southeast when the Chinese attacked.
First Lt. George Wheeland, today a retired City of Tucson finance officer, recalls Thanksgiving, 1950:
"Morse Holladay and I were in supply. We spent that day running cranberries for Thanksgiving Dinner." The Borozan family scrapbook includes a copy of the menu for that dinner. Harold Don remembers not getting his until a day later, and others recall that their food froze in the well-below-zero weather.
Wheeland served as a WW II combat platoon leader on Eniwetok, Saipan, and Iwo Jima. "I was lucky--my outfit drew mop-up every time. I was never in any early waves."
But Wheeland's luck ran out in the initial Chinese attack a few days later, when he was hit in the back by Chinese mortar fragments. Unable to stand, he was literally dragged down a hill in the snow to safety. He recovered in the United States and was assigned to non-combat duty for the remainder of the war. He later joined the reconstituted reserve unit, and retired as a major and the outfit's CO in the '50s.
"What probably saved me was the amount of clothing I was wearing. It was bitterly cold and I just kept putting on more clothes," Wheeland says.
Temperatures in the mountains sometimes dropped to 40 below with a blowing wind. Men froze to death in foxholes, and frostbite caused as many casualties as enemy action. Some of those frostbite victims have recurring problems to this day. And others have had delayed reactions, like Earl "Tiny" Collins, who served with Charlie Company of the Motor Transport Battalion. He won a Bronze Star with V in the Chosin campaign for clearing burning trucks from a road under heavy enemy fire. He came back to a long career as a heavy-equipment operator and retired a few years ago. Collins has already lost both legs and the fingers from one hand. "Tiny" Collins, 6-feet-5, says he's so big he has to die a little bit at a time.
The cold gave Niggie Romero his first hospital visit. Knocked down and unable to rise from a Chinese grenade blast, Romero almost froze to death before he was found by another E Company Marine, Henry Valdenegro, and carried off. He spent a week on a hospital ship that time.
THE MARINES on the west side of the reservoir around Hagaru-ri were hit hard. The Army units of the 7th Division on the east side were annihilated. Out of 3,300 engaged in the battle between November 28 and December 1, only about 500 soldiers survived death or imprisonment. The rest straggled into Marine positions and then joined in the epic fighting retreat to the coast.
Surrounded, greatly outnumbered, and dependent on air support for supplies and the evacuation of wounded, there were no non-combatants. Transportation troops like Price, Borozan and Collins, along with Robert Castro, Vicente Suarez and Al Felix, drove literally for days without stopping. Supply outfits fought off ambushes and broke roadblocks. Engineers cleared roads and built bridges under heavy fire.
On December 11, after fighting off continuous attacks by Chinese and North Koreans, the First Marine Division reached the relative safety of Hungnam, where they took more casualties during the perimeter defense. They were all evacuated by December 18. Besides their dead, they left behind two greatly mauled Chinese armies.
They never called it a retreat--they simply advanced in a different direction.
THE DIVISION was re-committed to the Masan area in South Korea to handle "guerrillas"--in reality, North Korean units bypassed in the earlier offensive. On February 21, the Marines were back in the front lines counter attacking the massive gains the Chinese had made into South Korea.
On March 22, Romero caught shrapnel in both legs. After being patched in a field hospital--his second hospital visit--he was back on the line. In action around Yodung, he caught a machine-gun bullet in the chin. Henry Trujillo was wounded at the same time. The wounded Romero was strapped into a helicopter side litter. Harold Don and others watched as the chopper went down in enemy fire. The Marine in the other litter was killed. Rescued, Romero was then loaded onto a truck with other wounded. The truck was ambushed, and Romero was hit again--in both legs.
The round Romero had taken in the chin had deflected into his chest cavity and emerged below his armpit. It looked bad. Field hospital medics red-tagged him, and put him aside with those beyond hope.
But one of the medics there was a Navy Corpsman from E Company, Jimmy Fisher. Romero still has the "escapulario" Fisher gave him.
Later, they had to pry it from his closed hand. "It's the only thing I brought back from Korea," Romero says. He has three Purple Hearts. He'd have more, but getting hit more than once in a 24-hour period didn't count.
Romero woke up in Japan two weeks later with his jaw wired shut. Almost 50 years later, he's still going back to the VA Hospital for additional surgery, but his stoic cheerfulness and sense of humor is a joy to behold. "There was an M written on my forehead in the hospital. Some guys tried to convince me it was for Mexican--it actually meant morphine."
THERE ARE enough other stories of Easy Company to fill a large volume, but one more needs to be told, that of David Arellano:
A First Battalion, First Regiment, machine gunner, he was wounded at Wonsan. After three months on the hospital ship Hope, he returned to his unit. Hit later in the face, the wound became infected. He kept quiet about it to get home.
After returning to Tucson, the infection grew worse. The VA Hospital denied him admission--Korean War participants were not eligible for VA benefits because it wasn't a declared war. When the American Legion and the national media spread Arellano's story, Congress acted immediately, and President Harry S Truman signed the bill extending benefits to all Korean vets on the same day Arellano got his operation--at the Pima County Hospital. He has a scrapbook containing newspaper clippings and get-well cards from all over the nation.
In this cynical age, when patriotism and devotion to duty are often denigrated, the modest heroes of Easy Company stand out like beacons. They weren't alone--another 63 Tucsonans, or those with a Tucson connection, were killed in Korea, at a time when Tucson's population was a mere 50,000.
It may be called the "forgotten war," but we can never forget their sacrifice. The men of Easy Company represent not only an important part of Tucson's heritage, but America's.
The writer wishes to thank those Easy Company members he interviewed, and others whose stories he acquired elsewhere. Portions of this article came from two pamphlets, E-Company Marines Remembered, published by Ruben Moreno and available through the Tucson Marines Corps League, and Tucson's Korean War Dead, published in 1997 by William E. Biggleston.
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