E-Company Marines Remembered


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Robert C. Alvarez in Marine Corps uniform
Robert C. Alvarez

I grew up in the downtown area of Tucson on Convent Street, between Cushing and Simpson Streets. We knew lean times during the depression because my father only worked two or three times a week at the Southern Pacific "Round House." You could say that the Chinese stores came to the rescue with the cartera system that they used. They would issue you a note book which you would keep for your use and they would keep a copy. They would write down whatever you would buy and on payday, you would settle accounts with them. The Chinese were usually lenient and would sometimes let the balance ride if you couldn't pay it all. You were on your honor. You more or less paid what you could, when you could.

It helped that we lived with my grandmother on my father's side and we didn't have to pay rent. It was a little crowded. Besides my family, my uncle was also living with us. Both he and my father had been wounded in World War I.

My father fought with the 32nd Infantry Division, "The Glockenspiels" from Wisconsin. He fought in five major battles. He was shot through the leg in the Meuse-Argonne Battle. He was still in Germany a year after the war in Koblenz. Communications were not what they are today and when he didn't show up in Tucson, he was given up for dead. My grandmother almost had heart failure when she answered the knock on the door and he announced, "I'm home!"

Things improved as the '30's wore on. My father was still working for the Southern Pacific but it was steadier, with some overtime. They used to service steam engines there, at the "Round House." My mother also found a steady job with Jacome's Department Store.

I remember there was always a large gang of kids in our backyard. We'd play "War" or "Cowboys and Indians" or whatever action movies we had seen last. At night, we would play games at the Quatro Esquinas, where we could see by the street corner light. As it got late, we would settle down to listen to "Vice" Suarez tell us stories which he made up as he went along.

I attended Drachman Elementary, then Safford Junior High and then Tucson High. In December of 1945, I enlisted in the Marines and left for boot camp in San Diego.

I was allotted the usual ration of boot camp misery, but it let up when I was one of seven to qualify "Expert" with the M1.

I wasn't kept in the states too long after boots. They put me on the 101 draft headed overseas and when they ran short in the 100th draft, they moved me up into it. So, I left the states on the "S.S. Dashing Wave," a real scowl, which stayed afloat long enough to deposit us in Takubar, China. From there, we boarded a train to Tientsin. Shell Oil Company had an operation around there and they needed us to protect their supply dumps. Then, a supply train was-ambushed at Honping, midway between Tientsin and Peking. The Lieutenant in charge was killed, along with a corporal and a private, and there were a few wounded but, they saved the cargo. From then on, any cargo going to Peking, we, the 1st Marines, 1st Division, would escort half way there, where we would meet the 5th Marines with an empty truck. We would make the change and then drive back. That worked quite well.

In September of 1947, we packed up and left Takubar and headed back to the states. Back at Pendleton, the 1st Battalion, 1st Marines was disbanded and used to fill out other outfits. There was talk of doing away with the Marines and even the Navy; that the Army and the Air Force could do it all!

It wasn't long before I was sent to the east coast to Norfolk, Virginia, to chase prisoners. Before that, I had taken a 60-day leave and had gone home. There, I found out my father had been gravely sick and hadn't worked for some time. I got a job where my uncle worked and helped the family out that way, until I had to go back to Pendleton.

In 1948 I was promoted to corporal, which was a little ahead of time, so I must have been doing something right. My time was up in December of 1949. I shipped over for another two years, for which I was given my mustering-out pay and a 30-day leave. I reported back to the Boston Navy Yard where I was assigned as Corporal of the Guard. That's where I was when the North Koreans decided to go to war.

We took a train all the way to Camp Pendleton from the east coast to the west coast, picking up more Marines as we moved along. When we got to Tucson, I called my friend, Hector Hansen, and he came to the train depot to chat with me. He told me that "E" Company of the Marine Reserves had been activated and were scheduled to leave in a few days.

At Pendleton, we spent a lot of time cleaning weapons, which had been "moth-balled." They were thick with cosmoline. These were WWII weapons which we were going to use. I wound up in the 5th Marine Regiment. When we pulled out onboard the "USNS Marine Phoenix," the 5th Marine Brigade was already fighting in the Pusan perimeter. They were slugging it out at the 2nd battle of Naktong when we arrived in Pusan. The brigade was pulled out to join us in preparation for the Inchon Landing.

The 3rd Battalion of the 5th Marines hit the island of Wolmi-do about 0600, 15 September, 1950. Their purpose was to take the island and reduce its effectiveness as an artillery platform. Otherwise, the afternoon landings would have been disastrous.

My "Charlie" Company was scheduled to land north of Wolmi-do on the sea wall at "Red Beach." The P.A. system gave the word, "Land the landing force!" That was us, center stage! So, we eased ourselves down the cargo nets into the LCVP's and slowly made our way toward Inchon. We went past Wolmi-do's west side, in a file, in a column. At a certain distance, the column turned, pointed towards the sea wall. Before we got there, our company commander's landing boat conked out and our boat took it in tow. The delay landed us in the wrong place, so we had to go looking for the rest of the company in a very unhealthy situation. It was here that Lieutenant Baldemero Lopez was killed, earning the first Medal of Honor awarded in the Korean War.

After an uneventful night on Cemetery Hill, where we got a thorough soaking in the evening rain, we pushed on through the high ground until we were ordered to stop in a cornfield.

Early next morning, we heard a lot of gun fire and could see Marines standing up to shoot in a southerly direction. We could hear the 75 recoiless rifles and the 90's on the M-26 tanks going! When the shooting finally stopped, we were ordered to move out, columns of two's. As we went through the cut on the road, we could see five T-34 tanks blasted out of commission and North Korean bodies scattered all over the landscape. North of us, we would hear the 2nd Battalion attacking their objective, Ascom City.

We continued on the road to Seoul and took two small hills overlooking Yongdungpo. That night, the North Koreans counter attacked and they were sorry they did!

We were supposed to be relieved by Capt. Barrow's outfit, but due to some snafu we spent the night there. Next morning, some idiots got up on the ridgeline to lollygag and I just happened to look in the right direction to see a puff of smoke and the thud of mortars being fired at them. That's the quickest way to get them off the skyline!

We got the word to move out in the dark. We were in a file, moving away from Youngdungpo when the word is passed, towards the rear' "Sopol up!" The word comes back; "Sopol's not here." Again, the word comes back from the front; "Sopol up!" Again, it comes back from the rear; "Sopol's not here!" When the transmission was finally straightened out, of course "Sopol" wasn't here! The actual word was "Smoking lamp is out!" Fox hole humor? Can you imagine how word-of-mouth can get so mixed up? And, this is with the English-speaking people! I can pity the poor army units who intermingled South Korean troops with their fighting men.

We headed towards Kimpo Air Field and dug in for the night. Next day, we crossed the Hun River and attacked the hills designated "105," "105 North," "105 Central "" and "105 South." "Able" and "Baker" Companies got chewed up bad trying to take the slopes so Charlie Company, my company, was ordered to the right flank on a sort of an enveloping movement to give covering fire to the assault troops.

Our artillery had been shelling that part of the hill all morning and I guess the word was late in getting to them that we were there. Six shells dropped in on us. I dropped to the deck when I heard it coming. The explosion pushed me right into the shale and I thought for sure I'd been hit on the back! Five men that I knew were killed in that salvo. We covered the attack with just two machine guns. We lost eighteen men, all told; killed or wounded, that day.

Well, we held on to that hill for about three days, then we were ordered to patrol the hills close to the Hun River to make sure they were clear of enemy. The 1st Marines would be coming in through there. When they came in, I ran into my friend, Ruben Moreno and some of the guys from Tucson.

I showed them one of my machine guns that got more than its "baptism of fire." The ammo belt had been shot off, the bolt handle had been hit, so had the rear-sight flange and the front sight had been shot off! Grey Baum, my gunner, had been shot through the head!

From there, we headed for Seoul to what I took to be the outskirts of a university. Then, we started hitting barricades at every intersection. Then, it was back to the hills around Seoul. Seoul was taken by the 1st Marines and we were trucked back to Inchon where we boarded ship and headed for the landing at Wonsan.

After the infamous "Operation Yo-Yo" that had us thinking the war was over when all they were doing was buying time until the mines were cleared from the harbor, we wound up at Chigyong. Chigyong was up in the mountains. We had foot patrol flaring out from there. They were long hikes. Word had been received that there was an enemy unit in the area ahead. Lt. Dahl's 3rd Platoon was to truck out there and check it out. My machine gun section went along. We were coming to a place on the road where it turned into a valley with high ground on either side. The Lieutenant had the presence of mind to stop the trucks and send us on foot over the high ground. We went over the ridge and down a wooded slope. We weren't all out of the woods when some anxious dummy cut loose with a long burst of his "burp" gun. If he had waited, he would have had us all in the open. We had one Marine killed and two wounded. The enemy lost twenty-two.

From Chigyong, we kept moving north, on through Koto-ri and on to the right side of the Chosin Reservoir. Besides some foot patrols, we also had our Thanksgiving dinner there. The next day we were ordered to the west side of the reservoir, to Yudang-ni. Right away I said, "I don't like this place! Something's wrong here!"

We were told to make ourselves comfortable because the next day we were going on the attack. The plan was that the 2nd Battalion was to lead the attack on the hill "1282," take it, hold it and then the 3rd Battalion was to go through and take the next hill. Then my battalion, the 1st, would continue.

The 2nd Battalion, under heavy resistance, took the high ground. Colonel Roise, the battalion commander, decided to hold what he and Lt. Col. Murray concurred by saying, "Let's see what we have here."

At 2200 (10:00 p.m.), all hell broke loose! The Chinese hit all our positions where we had set up in the mountains! There were about ten under-strength infantry companies holding on by the proverbial "skin of their teeth." It was touch and go and you could see the ebb and flow of the battle by the tracers being fired and the artillery going off. Then word came up for our 1st Battalion to go forward. Captain Jones ordered two platoons up hill "1282," "And the 3rd Platoon," he says, "is going down the hill to assist the 7th Marines hold that terrain!" We got to the top just before the Chinese coming up the other side did. We were "Kings of the Mountain!" We stopped them dead! The Chinese lost about one battalion trying to take that slope. You couldn't see the snow for the bodies that were covering it!

Late in the afternoon, a company from the 3rd Battalion relieved us and we were sent down to our original positions. We had no sooner got there when we were ordered back up hill "1282." This time to make the defense line longer. In other words, we were fusing the flank.

We were away from the action and just holding our position. I lost count of the days, then I noticed some Marines on the road heading south. Next, we were ordered down the road, then told to take the hills on the left side of the road. We started to climb and I began to smell garlic! It got stronger until we came across a shell crater with seven dead Chinese around it.

As we went on, we got the smell of garlic again. This time, it was a well-fortified hill with one particularly good-sized bunker. It was decided to send the 2nd Platoon on the attack. As if on cue, six of our machine guns opened up on the bunker at the same time. The steady stream of fire put it out of action, but in return, the Chinese answered with sixty machine guns. Captain Jones and Captain Fenton decided we couldn't take the hill with what men we had and as well fortified as it was, so they called. the 2nd Platoon back and we headed down the hill. It took us all night to get down where we were to give close security to the convoy but the convoy was stopped by a road block ahead.

I noticed something strange about the Marines sitting on the side of the road and I started to laugh! They would start to nod off and all of a sudden startled themselves awake in a fright, like they had missed out on something. Then, I noticed I was doing the same thing!

I was being bothered by snow blindness. I had to squint to see and my eyes burned. The night would bring some relief.

With the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines holding Toktong, Pass, we managed to make it to Hagaru-ri on 4 December. We slept in tents for the first time since around the 16th of November. The next day, we were back in fox holes, guarding the perimeter.

On the 6th, the Marines started south again, on the road to Koto-ri, at first light. My regiment, the 5th Marines, was to hold the perimeter and take, "East Hill." Now, "East Hill," "Objective A," had been contested and repeatedly fought over, since the Marines first came to Hagaru. The attack went in by "Dog" Company, 2nd Battalion, while "Objective A" was taken at the cost of one killed and two wounded. The Chinese left fifty dead at the top.

The Chinese wanted "East Hill" real bad. If they had taken it, they could have stopped us from reaching Koto-ri. Shortly after dark, they started coming in bunches! Four abreast to begin with, and then, those that were alive would deploy in their battle formation and keep coming!. They kept the attack going for what seemed like two days to me! When the din of battle finally slackened, I asked Smitty for the time and he said it was after 12:00 o'clock. "That makes it the 7th of December, right?" I asked. He said, "Yeah!" "Then, it's my birthday, Smitty!" "Happy Birthday, Al" he exclaims. He was quiet for a while, then asks, "You always celebrate your birthday like this?" "Like what?" "With a bang!" he replies. We muffle our laughter. After another pause, Smitty says, "Al?" "Yeah." "Don't invite me to your next birthday party." Again, we muted our laughter. Then, I got to thinking, "Does this guy know something I don't? Am I going to be around for my next birthday?"

Things were quiet for a while. Then, at 0200, the Chinese decided to try again, as determined as ever. This time, they hit "Able" Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines. This was by the road coming from Yudam-ni. Some of "Able" Company was pushed back to the high ground where the battalion C.P. had set up. They held there and then "Baker" Company, who was in reserve, was ordered to counter attack and regain the lost ground, which they did. We connected with them right at the road and railroad tracks.

Remember, we were supposed to be moving south toward Koto-ri, but the convoy was having all kinds of problems with the Chinese. Colonel Beall, the commander of the division Train II needed infantry support so 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines was ordered to disengage and report to Col. Beall on the road. The 3rd Battalion's "Item" Company had been shot to pieces on "Hill 1540," a little north of Toktong Pass. The Chinese came close to breaking through them. When "George" Company went through to relieve them, all they found were dead marines but a hell of a lot more dead Chinese. So, "Item" Company existed only on paper.

Of course, the Chinese had to try again when they saw the 3rd Battalion moving out, so our artillery really got busy. Toward daybreak, the Chinese cut loose with tremendous mortar barrage. An F. 0. (forward observer) for our 81 mortars took refuge in our fox hole. I asked him, "'What kind of fire is this?" "There doesn't seem to be any rhyme or reason to it." He told me it was not deliberate aim fire. It was known as mass fire. It is used to cover troop withdrawal. "You mean, they're pulling out while it's still dark?" "Yeah" he says. "Looks like it's going to be a clear day and they know what our Corsairs air cover can do.

Sure enough, Corsairs showed up and we moved out. We had a few small fire fights along the way, but it was a cake walk, compared to what we had been through. Our outfit made it to Koto-ri and on down to Hungnam without having to engage in another fire fight. We boarded the USS Randall and wound up in the "Bean Patch" at Masan.

There, the doctor made us take off our shoe packs for an inspection. My feet were a mess from cold damage, so I was evacuated to a Swedish Hospital. Then, I was sent to Japan where I was told not to take a shower because of frostbite. Like the devil I won't take a shower! So, I did! When the hot water hit my feet ... Yeowww! What, pain!

I pretty well recovered at the Yokosuka Naval Hospital and then was sent to the replacement depot at Camp Otsu. While I was there, a call for D.I.'s (drill instructors) came from stateside and I was one of the volunteers. So, that was it for me, as far as the fighting end of the Korean "Police Action" went.

Added information by Ruben L. Moreno

Robert C. Alvarez made a career of the Marine Corps. After his stint as a D.I. in Paris Island,, he was sent to Camp Lejeune, where he was made ready for a trainiing "Med" cruise. Upon his return, he was sent to Japan with the 3rd Division. That done with, he wound up in Quantico, Virginia, as Intelligence and Operations Chief.

Another billet as D. I. followed in Paris Island. In 1963 he was assigned to the "I" and "I" staff in New Jersey training reserves. He was a gunny sergeant then. Then, it was back to Camp Lejeune, "Swamp Lagoon" as he called it. I think, by this time, he was getting tired of the place.

In 1966, he was sent to Vietnam. Six months into his tour, his brother, Johnny, showed up, so he went to see him to tell him he had to go home since the rule was that two brothers couldn't be in the combat zone at the same time. When Johnny gave him an argument, Robert says, "I'm the older brother! I have the 'say-so' here." Johnny shot back "At ease, Sgt. Alvarez! I out rank you and I'm giving you an order!"

Actually, it made more sense for Robert to get out of there because officers would only be six months on the line and then had to go to the rear for the next six months of their tour ... And Johnny was an officer!

Robert was sent to Okinawa and then back to "Swamp Lagoon," where after twenty-three years, he received his discharge on the 10th of February, 1968.

Robert married in 1954 and raised four fine children.

Robert Alvarez and friends
Robert Alvarez, second from left

The Arizona Daily Star
Tucson, Sunday, March 26, 2000
ROBERT C. ALVAREZ

71, peacefully passed away on March 23,2000 surrounded by loving family. Preceded in death by maternal and paternal grandparents; uncle, Yicki Alvarez; father, Cipriano J.; and mother, Guillermina.

Survived by his beloved wife of 28 years Matilde (Diochea); daughters, Juanita and Tina (John) of Tucson; and sons, David (Roxanne, San Diego, CA) and Michael (North Adams. MA). Also by brothers, John C. (Lei, San Diego, CA); Raymond and Joseph C.; and sisters, Lillian C. and Eloina A. Bustamante, all of Tucson; uncle, Alex (Edna) Castro (Las Vegas, NV); aunts, Rafaela Danbacher (Whittier. CA) and Alicia (Hector) Laos of Tucson. Extremely proud, doting grandfather of Christopher, Desiree, Marrissa and Mariah.

He served 22 years in the United States Marine Corps spanning World War II, the Korean War and two tours of duty in Vietnam. His decorations, medals and other awards include eight Good Conduct Medals, two Presidential Unit Citations. China Service Medal, three Korean Service Medals, Korean Presidential Unit Citation, the World War II Victory Medal, the Navy Occupation Service Medal - Europe, United Nations Service Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Vietnamese Service Medal, Vietnamese Campaign Medal, M-14 Rifle Expert Badge and .45 Caliber Pistol Expert Badge.

In addition, he served the United States Federal Government for a period of 29 years as a U.S. Marshall and a member of the Federal Protective Service.

He is best remembered for his infectious sense of humor and creative, descriptive nicknames for family members. Robert loved animals and the beauty of the Arizona desert. All the love he gave he also received from family and friends. His sudden death took everyone by surprise and he will be qreatly missed by all.

Visitation will be held Monday, March 27 from 5:00 to 9:00 p.m. with a Rosary recital at 7:00 p.m. at ARIZONA MORTUARY UNIVERSITY CHAPEL. Graveside Services will be Thursday, March 30, 11:00 a.m. at Holy Hope Cemetery.

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