Oscar "Challo" Franco
I was born in Tucson, Arizona, on April 19,1931. I grew up in the area known as "Callejon Main" at 822 S. Main. Our playground was the street. Summers, we spent swimming at the Carrillo School pool. Sometimes we would even sneak in, jumping the fence, to go swimming at night.
My father, Filiberto L. Franco, was born in Nogales, Arizona, but raised in Tucson. He met my mother, Felicia Benitez, at Rincon, east of Tucson. They were married at the Santa Cruz Church in Tucson. I was one of five children from this marriage. When my father moved to town, he worked for the railroad.
I attended Drachman and Carrillo Grammar School, then Safford Junior High, then did one year at Tucson High School but quit to go to work for George Castelan Signs.
At sixteen, I tried to join the regular marines with my friend, Richard Villegas, but my mother wouldn't sign for me. Then, at seventeen, I joined the "E" Company Reserves. I attended one summer camp in 1950 and we were no sooner back in Tucson, when the Korean War broke out and we were activated.
Because of my age and limited training, I was sent to San Diego for boot training. I went through boot with Willy Valenzuela, Frankie Gradillas, Henry Parra, Jessie Ybarra, Arnulfo Borboa, Lorenzo Borboa, Joe Finley, Malcolm Schaeffer, Arnulfo Mares and Manuel Mares. We were all in the same platoon.
I was looking at a picture taken at Camp Mathews that shows a box my mother had sent me with tamales, biscochuelos, chile and I don't know what else. When we got back to boots, my D.I. says, "I bet you guys are full of 'poggie bait' (candy and sweets)!" I guess we were.
After boot camp, I was sent to Tin-Camp-Two for combat training. I was assigned to "Charlie" Company with Arnulfo Mares and Manuel Pesquiera. We were the only ones from Tucson. We were mixed in, reserves with regulars. We got no respect from the regulars until Korea, when they found out we could perform and die just as well as they. When my sergeant in Korea, Manuel Lopez, got back, he admitted as much to me. He was my platoon sergeant.
Once I was done with advance training, I was assigned to the third draft, headed for Korea on the Aikin Victory. George Pompa, "Blackie" Carrillo, Gilbert Ruelas, Eddie Lovio and Arnulfo Mares were the Tucsonans with me on board ship. Also, my friend Edward Gomez from Omaha was on the same draft.
We landed in Kobe, Japan, where we got rid of our sea bags. From there, we went to Pusan, Korea. Then we were flown fifty miles behind the lines to replace the casualties in the 1st Marine Division around Wonju. Hector Leon was coming off the line and boarding the plane we came in. I heard someone holler at me and I turned to see "Chui" Casteldeoro driving by on a truck. Then I saw Robert "Spaghetti" Castro and Vicente Suarez.
I had been assigned to a machine-gun section with "Easy" Company, 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment since before we left Japan. I had had no training in machine guns but I guess it didn't matter. They just went down the list with the assignments. Gilbert Ruelas and Charlie Romero went to Ordnance, "Blackie" Carrillo went to "Dog" Company, 2nd Battalion.
There's a picture taken with my camera near Chongchon. I had gotten permission from my C.O. to go visit with some of the guys from Tucson as long as I took my rifle with me. I'm the only one with a rifle. Charlie Romero is holding a guitar, which is about the right ratio. That's how we won the war.
After what happened to me, I can't remember too much about the action I was in. I've asked around but my memory just won't click. I know I was in about three battles.
The day that my buddy, Edward Gomez was killed, we were on the push. I know "Dog" Company had been hit bad and we were called forward. We got into a hot fire fight and we were losing men. What I remember is that we set up our gun and started firing for about five or six minutes. Then the Chinese started throwing grenades at us.
Gomez was my foxhole buddy. We got to know each other well. We shared a lot. He was a good kid, small but well built. He had been a Golden Glove welterweight boxer.
Going up Hill 749, he had thrown back a grenade that had landed among us. Then he shot at three Chinese that charged at us. When they threw that grenade at our gun emplacement, Gomez picked it up, pulled it into his stomach, spun his body away from the gun and fell on it. He saved my life!
I don't remember anything that happened after that. "Fanel" Gallardo ("E" Company member) says he saw me being brought down from the hill. I had Gomez' blood on my face. He says he tried to talk to me but I wouldn't answer. One of the guys that was helping me told him I couldn't hear him - that I was out of it - in shock.
Once before, Gomez had been wounded and when he was awarded the Purple Heart, I had taken a picture of him. He made a comment then, "Well, this isn't the million-dollar wound (the one that would send you home alive), but it's better than the $10,000 one." (That's the one where your next of kin collect the insurance money.) We used to talk about visiting each other when we were done with the war. He would come to Tucson and I would go to Omaha. Being raised in Omaha, his Spanish was not too good so I used to read his mother's letters to him. He learned a lot of Spanish from me. He knew the words to that Mexican song - "Quiza, quiza, quiza."
I corresponded with his folks after I was back and I kept telling myself I would go visit them, but it was too painful for me.
They say that when Gomez got it, I picked up a carbine and tried to take the hill by myself. I don't remember that and I don't have any medals to prove that. Two-and-a-half months later, I came to in a hospital in Japan. For a while, I thought I had been taken prisoner when I saw this Japanese sweeping the ward. Then this guy comes up to me and says, "Hey, Franco! You're awake!" I asked, "What do you mean?" "Well," he says, "You were awake but you weren't with us."
From Japan I was sent to Hawaii for about a month, then to Santa Margarita Ranch Hospital at Pendleton for another three months. Then I was released and sent home.
Even today, I am not completely over being "shell shocked". Any sudden noise will make me jump. I landed in the hospital two to three times after I got back in 1952. One time the rodeo parade was going through downtown when they shot their.45's. I hit the deck in front of Woolworth's store! People gathered around me and a policeman wanted to know if I was drunk. My sister worked close by at Field's Jewelry, so he took me out there and set me down by the office until I got over it.
When I worked for the City of Tucson, the guys at work had a steel plate that they would drop on the floor near me to see me jump. It was a big joke to them. Not too long ago, I went with Willy Valenzuela to Fort Benning, Georgia on one of his tours that he does with the government. We watched a field problem involving tanks. When they cut loose with a salvo, I nearly jumped out of my shoes.
It's taken a long time, but I'm getting much better than I used to be. I guess we all have some kind of flashback from the war. but after all these years, you wouldn't think that even a small thing like a fire cracker would make me jump.
I worked for the City of Tucson for thirty-two years. My intention was to put some more time in, but in 1984, I came down with cancer. This has been a rough war, with three distinct battles and a total of thiry-eight chemo treatments. I had Hodgkin's disease involving a couple of operations. I had my spleen removed. It was full of cancer, but luckily, it had not spread. You know, Tom Price died from it. I had told him once, "The Koreans couldn't kill me, I'm certainly not going to let this do it!" Since mine was detected, there have been six guys I know die from it, so I consider myself very lucky! During "E" Company's forty-fifth reunion, I was hobbling around with pain on my lower back and leg. But it turned out to be a messed-up vertebrae which I had taken care of. It still spooked me.
I stay pretty active. I travel every chance I get. I visited San Antonio and liked it so well I'm going there again. Then I have a son in Seattle and a daughter who lives in the Los Angeles area. I've gone on three cruises and I have nine grandchildren which I visit.
Then, too, I'm active with the Marine Corps League. Every time they have a convention, I try to make it. I've made a couple of National Conventions and several regionals in Las Vegas. I remember when the National Convention was held in Anaheim, when we were first organized, we took cases of liquor, which different Tucson merchants had donated for our hospitality room, so that we could court the League to hold their next convention in Tucson. It worked! Two years later, we had the National Convention in Tucson. What a blast that was!
You know, I've done a few good things in my life, but the best was joining the Marines. I'm proud of the men I served under and with. I'm especially proud of "Easy" Company and other Tucsonans who are Marines. I remember, one time in Korea, when the whole 1st Division was in reserve, Colonel "Big Foot" Brown was doing some P.R. and when he asked me where I was from, I said, "Tucson, Sir!" He says, "Is everyone here from Tucson? I was just talking to a couple of Tucsonans over there!" Maybe not, but we were pretty well represented throughout the Korean War.
I love the Marine Corps. That's why I'm still involved. I'm the chaplain of the League's Tucson Chapter and I help with whatever I can... as a photographer, with the Devil Pups Program and whatever and whenever I can. It lifts my spirit. Spirit de Corps.