Home / Oral Histories / Juan C. Alverez
Juan C. Alvarez
I grew up in the downtown barrio neighborhood at 323 S. Convent Street in Tucson. My birth date is October 25, 1932. As a kid, I sometimes helped my grandmother dig around her garden and run errands for her but I didn't really have special chores to speak of. Most of my growing years I lived with my grandmother on my father's side.
My Father, Cypriano Alvarez, was born in Cananea, Sonora, Mexico, and was brought to Arizona at an early age. He served in the Army with the 32nd Infantry (Spearhead) Division as a corporal in World War I. He received a leg wound in the battle for the Argonne Forest. He didn't return from Europe until 1919. He retired from the Southern Pacific where he was a switchman here in Tucson.
I attended Drachman Elementary, then Safford Junior High School and finally Tucson High School. I also played in the city league with the Millville Farmers. With the Blue Bombers, I played flag football in the city recreational league. We played The Panthers for the city championship and came out second best. I joined the Marine Reserves in 1949 after my friend "Sherlock" and I tried the National Guard and were turned down because we were too young. Then, the Marines found out I wasn't seventeen yet, and they released me. A few months later, I signed up again and they accepted me. I joined because it was something to do; not much else going on.
I did one summer camp before we were called for the Korean War. I remember standing around waiting to board the train on July 31, 1950. My folks had not come to see me off. I was in a pensive mood with all these thoughts running through my mind, wondering how long before I would see Tucson again or whether I would make it back at all. A lady whom I did not know, came up to me and said, "I notice there's no one here to see you off, so I thought I'd come over and wish you buena suerte and don't worry, you'll come back." I thought that was very nice of her so I thanked her. She was waving at me as the train pulled away. I felt she was giving me her blessing.
During World War II, I'd make a run by the train depot selling newspapers. Invariably, there would be a troop train there. The servicemen would ask me to buy them candy or ice cream. Once, a soldier said he'd buy all my papers if I would get him a gallon of ice cream, so I gave him my papers and he gave me a twenty dollar bill. I raced to the store and just made it back in time. Then he told me to keep the change. I never thought then, that in a few years I would be in their place going off to war.
Because of my age, when we got to Camp Pendleton I was sent to Area Twenty-Four along with quite a few other guys who weren't eighteen yet. From there I was sent to the ammunition dump. I was there a couple of weeks before I was told to lay out my gear to see what I was missing. They brought my clothing allotment up to regulation and sent me to boot camp at M.C.R.D. San Diego.
When I was done with boot camp, I was sent to Marine Barracks, Terminal Island at Long Beach. I was there with the Gate Guard Detachment for a few weeks, then they sent me to the brig as a block sentry. It was lousy duty, but it was to get better. In January of 1951, I was transferred to Marine Barracks, Seal Beach. We had a reserve sergeant who had been the head chef for a big hotel in Long Beach. Boy, could he cook! We were eating like kings. And, while I was there, I became the last of the horse Marines. The way it happened, I was sitting in on a lecture, half asleep, when a sergeant came in asking for four volunteers. Anything was better than the boring lecture, so I raised my hand, then two more guys did. The sergeant then volunteered one more. An officer explained what we had let ourselves in for. It seems that because the terrain was so marshy, the jeeps would often get stuck, so the horses were ideal for this particular area. We patrolled the fence line and made sure no one came into the area. Every morning I would have breakfast, pick up my khaki sack of lunch with two sandwiches and some fruit, strap on my .45 and start riding for eight hours all along the fence. Of course, in some places I would have to ride away from the fence because of the water. I didn't feel like swimming. I tell you, that was choice duty, at home on the range.
All good things must come to an end and before too long, I found myself back in Pendleton on the 15th Replacement Draft, going through advance infantry training and ten to fifteen-mile conditioning hikes. And, thereby hangs a tale. I had gone to visit some friends at Seal Beach and really made a night of it. I had put a lot of beer away, but managed to pour into Tin-Camp-Two at four o'clock in the morning. Now all this time, they were telling us we were due for a fifteen-mile conditioning hike but they kept postponing it. Well, you guessed it. I was just crawling into my sack when they sounded reveille, announcing a fifteen-mile hike. The guys saw me stumble out of the quonset hut with all my gear on and started kidding me, "Hey, someone get the Band-Aids! Look at Al's eyes. This man is bleeding to death!"
I'll tell you, the march was torture. Soon I felt like I was walking on stumps but I just kept putting one foot in front of the other. After a couple of hours, some guys started dropping out but I was determined to give it all I had. All kinds of thoughts were running through my head. I knew combat was going to be tough and I had to see what I was made of. Once we passed mile ten, I knew I had it made. When the formation was dismissed back at Tin-Camp-Two, I headed for the sack and didn't wake up until the next day.
Crossing the Pacific headed for Korea, I was sicker than a dog. I couldn't understand how anyone could be so sick and not die. We debarked at Inchon and were trucked to Ascon City. I was on a truck convoy next day headed for the east coast of Korea where the 1st Marine Division was bivouacked. I wound up in Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment. This was the same outfit my brother Robert had been with in the "Frozen Chosin". I met two guys that remembered him but they were rotated home shortly after. I was assigned to a machine gun squad as an ammo carrier. Then they transferred me to a rifle platoon where I went from scout to BAR man, then back to rifleman.
We went on the line on Hill Ten-something. I think it was 1020. From our position, I could see the C.P. at the bottom of the hill. The tents looked like little toys. Our colonel was a real stiff-neck authoritarian, so when he stated, "My men are going to have hot chow," our C-rations were taken away from us and we had to walk an hour to get to the mess tent. We were the last to be served, "Tail gate Charlies". So, when we got there, all we got were two little tire patches with some real watery syrup that was supposed to be pancakes. I could swear they bounced when they threw them in our tray. We were starving when we got back to our bunker, so three of us decided to go scrounging.
We went to the 7th Marines area. They were tied into our lines. When we saw this marine heating up a can of rations, we asked him if he had any extra we could have. He pointed us to a hill of ration cans and said, "Help yourselves." I took a couple of empty sand bags and loaded them up. We all ate well. Shortly after that, the captain and the colonel were inspecting the line and they caught me heating a can of beans. The colonel asked if I wasn't supposed to be eating at the mess tent. Marines are taught to think fast and on their feet so I said, "Yes, Sir, but I'm on watch and I thought I'd have a little something to tide me over." It worked!
From there, we were again trucked back toward Seoul to man the Seoul Corridor. It seemed like it took forever to go to the other coast. Maybe it wasn't that long, but my butt was sure sore from riding those woodslats on the seat. There was also the anxiety of knowing you were a machine gunner's dream of a target. The sergeant took a few of us to do some shooting and decided to volunteer me to be a sniper. The bad part was that I had to go on every patrol that went out. What we were mainly after was the Chinese F.O.'s (forward observers). They were so good at their trade that they could put a 60 mm mortar in your hip pocket in just two rounds. We had several skirmishes with the Chinese and I usually hit what I aimed at. But after two-and-a-half months, it started to get to me, so I asked to be assigned some other duty.
On one patrol, we were to evacuate a group of huts that were in front of our lines. They were to be destroyed and they didn't want any civilians getting hurt. All we found was an old papasan and a mamasan. We called for transportation for them but the old woman refused to leave. We would escort her to the truck and she'd start arguing and wind up back in her hut. Of course we didn't understand what she was saying and she didn't understand us. Finally, one of the guys decided to get tough and started for her, arguing loudly, "I'm getting sick and tired of this!" She saw him coming and got her walking stick and started swinging it at him. He didn't want to hurt her so he backed off, but she wouldn't let up. "Get her off of me!" he pleaded. We were laughing so hard he didn't get any sympathy from us. "You got yourself into this. You get yourself out," was our response. She finally got tired of chasing him around the truck and went back to her hut. She was cooking some rice and other stuff and when she was done, she put it in some small baskets and then, calmly went and boarded the truck. That's all she wanted, just to finish her cooking.
When we first got there, we had seen a couple of white-clad peasants working on a rice paddy. We should have checked them out, but it's just as well we didn't. We might have uncovered a can of worms. When the truck with the old folks was gone, we started walking out. The sergeant was the last one out and he was having trouble latching the gate. That's when they started shooting at us. We jumped into a rice paddy and started returning the fire. We could see the sergeant sprinting toward us with bullets kicking up dust behind him. They just didn't seem to get the range. He dove into the rice paddy head first and made a nose landing in the muck. His head and face were completely covered with gunk. He was still huffing and puffing and he says, "Boy, that's the first time I ever ran twenty-eight hundred feet per second!" That struck us so funny, we couldn't stop laughing.
A sense of humor is a life saver in a tense situation. Once, we were working on our bunker when we heard a Chinese artillery battery go off. We all dove for the trench. We're hugging the dirt and the trench seemed to be getting wider and wider. The rounds kept raining in close. The Chinese were intent on getting us. Martin turns to his buddy, Goldberg, and asked him for a cigarette. Goldberg smoked Chesterfields, which very few men liked. They would trade three packs for one of Camels. One time, between salvos, Martin stood up and lit his cigarette, took a puff and said, "Please, dear God! Don't let my last cigarette be a Chesterfield." That cracked us up. We laughed 'till we had a bellyache. Ordinarily, it might not have been funny, but it was just what we needed that instant.
I was promoted to corporal shortly after my stint as a sniper, my first taste of command. Well, not really; I was made a squad leader but my squad consisted of a BAR man and the ammo carrier. I was the other ammo carrier, as well as a squad leader.
I left Korea on the U.S.S. Wiggle in December of 1952. We pulled into San Francisco on the 21st of December. I arrived in Tucson in the Greyhound Bus, saw my folks and then started looking up my friends. While I was visiting Leo Munoz, a seagoing Marine by the name of Trujillo came by. He looked sharp in his dress blues, so I filed that in my mind, thinking it would be good duty. I got my fill of tamales and Mexican food and visiting old friends. It seemed like the only thing I had in common with them was beer drinking. I actually missed the Corps, so I cut my leave short after only ten days. The regimentation, the discipline, the camaraderie; knowing the guy next to you would be willing to give his life for you, suited me to a "T". I had already shipped over for a six-year hitch when I was at Seal Beach, so I decided to make a career of the Marine Corps.
I reported M.C.R.D. for duty with the guard detachment. I made buck sergeant there, after which I did some brig duty as a turnkey. From there, I was sent to drill instructor school, passed with flying colors, then became a drill instructor.
When they started cutting back on the recruits, I was asked what other duty I would like, so right away, I thought about the seagoing Marines. There was an opening for an admiral’s driver. I applied and got it. The sergeant that was supposed to familiarize me with the vehicle was very busy so they sent me to get my two pair of dress blues. When I finally got behind the wheel, I nearly killed us both. "Christ!" he said. "How long have you been driving?" I said, "This is my first time." "Well, I can't let you drive the admiral. You're liable to get him killed." So ended my career as a seagoing Marine, but I got two sets of dress blues out of it. I thought I was a good Marine. I knew my job, whatever it happened to be at the time. I kept my nose clean and did my job well. As an enlisted man, I was a rifleman, a sniper, a BAR man, a fire-team leader, a squad leader, a platoon guide, a platoon sergeant, a company gunnery sergeant, a headquarters battery gunnery sergeant, a brig sentry, a brig turnkey, a horse Marine, a base recreation NCO, and NCOIC ceremonial detail, a military police, a Hawaiian Armed Services Police and a drill instructor (three tours).
As an officer, I was a rifle platoon commander, a company executive officer, a company commander, a battalion adjutant and a legal officer.
I did two tours of duty in Vietnam: Operation Matsus Island Crisis and Operation Cuban Missile Crisis, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
I was a Mustang (an enlisted man that goes up the ranks to become an officer). I retired on the 30th of June, 1970 as a captain.
In combat, I never got over being afraid. But my training was such that I could do what I had to do to survive. I think it was easier for me in Korea where all I had to do was follow orders. In Vietnam, I had to give them. I took the loss of any of my men very seriously. But that would be another story. My Hawaiian wife of forty-some years deserves a lot of credit for keeping my life in balance. She was also a Marine when I met her and she blessed me with eight wonderful kids. We live comfortably, and as of late, I've been working part time as a real estate appraiser. Life has been good.