interview by Annie M. Lopez
I grew up around Pascua Village on the northside, behind the Blue Moon. Our neighborhood was mostly family. There were many vacant lots and plenty of room to play. We had a baseball diamond and a football field. The Peraltas - Jimmy and Ramon - used to play golf around there.
My father was a subcontractor in the building trades and as I grew up I helped him. I also had responsibilities such as chopping wood, carrying water, cleaning the yard, and helping my grandmother and grandfather. For a while we had well water but then the city water came in and my dad installed it.
For fun we used to play hide-and-seek, ron-chiflon (run-sheep-run) and kick-the-can. We also played marbles and tops and made kites. We got bamboo from Peterson's Dairy and used "engrudo" (paste made from water and flour) to glue the paper.
I attended Davis Elementary, then Roosevelt, then back to Davis, then Roskruge and then Tucson High and graduated in 1948.
My cousin, Henry Valdenegro, was in the Navy, then the Army, and also did a hitch in the Air Force. When he was discharged he asked if I wanted to join the Marine Reserves with him and that's how I got in. After the Korean War Henry stayed in the Marines for thirty-five years before retiring.
When the Korean War broke out I was working with Pima Printing on Scott, and Gilbert Quintanilla, a former Marine, was my foreman. I was in the Reserves and when we were activated I was not prepared. We were taken by train to Camp Pendleton and I thought we were just going to summer camp for more training, but when they said "whoever has had two summer camps, step forward" I knew it was serious. The next thing we knew we were training day and night and then they took us on buses to San Diego and aboard the USS Noble.
We landed at Inchon on September 15th, 1950. 1 was with Able Company, 1st Battalion, 1st Marines. Most of the Tucson guys wound up in Able, Baker and Charlie Companies but a few went to the 2nd Battalion. I went in with the 15th wave, but we landed on the wrong beach. We were lucky - we landed on Red Beach when we were supposed to have landed on Blue Beach. We got a couple of rounds coming out of Inchon and then passed through a little village called Sosa before you get to Yongdungpo and that's where we had our first big battle. We were just setting up when the T-34 tanks hit us. From there we crossed the Han River to Seoul where we went house-to-house through the city. When we secured Seoul we went back to Inchon. At that time I was a rifleman.
I don't remember much about taking Seoul. I didn't have time to think; we were fighting and I saw friends get wounded. One of our biggest losses was when Jesus Carrasco got killed. Harold Don was one of the stretcher bearers and he was the one who notified us that Carrasco had been killed.
In our outfit, it was Able Company that raised the American Flag in Seoul. That might have been where Colonel Puller was ordered to show up for the rededication, to turn the city over to South Korea. They wouldn't let him in because he wasn't dressed properly - he was in fatigues and he let them know that this was the uniform he was wearing and he wasn't about to go back to the ship and change. He was finally let through. I don't remember that ceremony.
Colonel Puller was quite a hero to all Marines. I understand that at boot camp every night before they turned out the lights they'd say "Good night, Chesty, Wherever you are". In fact, my brother has a picture of himself with Chesty Puller taken at one of the Marine balls.
After Seoul we went back to Inchon where we were on the ship for two weeks. When they decided to land us we were at Wonsan and went on to Kojo where Baker Company was hit real bad. Some of the guys hit were Bobby Fisher, Bobby Quiroz, Richard Noriega, Shorty Epson, Gilbert Orduno and Freddie Grijalva. We were up on a hill, where we had a couple of casualties in our Company. The Corsairs were bombing the village beneath the hill and some of the shrapnel hit our personnel.
Kojo had a beautiful beach - an ideal place for R & R. The water was so clear you could see the fish swimming around.
I understand that the next day the village was shelled - something like a Battalion of North Koreans came out of there and they were strafed and shelled. In the morning we could see them strafing the rice fields and we could see them running. At the time they said they were guerrillas, but when guerrillas attack they hit and run and these troops went full force.
We went from Kojo to Hamhung. The Army had a railhead at Chinghungni which was our base of operations. We started going north and, through one of our reconnaissance patrols, we learned we were fighting Chinese. We killed some Chinese and there was a woman among them. Of course, the General didn't believe the Chinese were in on it yet - they still thought we were fighting North Koreans. The only way we could distinguish the Chinese from the North Koreans was that the Chinese were wearing white quilted uniforms.
I remember a hairpin turn on the road coming down from Kotori. Our outfit was called on to take Hill 1081 and we lost quite a few people there. That's where I hurt my back. A Chinese threw a grenade. I had my pack with me and I fell back - I don't know if I hit a stump or what, but I had to be carried down on a stretcher. I landed on a hospital ship for about a week and then went down to Masan, where I rejoined my Company and we started getting replacements. That's where we spent Christmas and New Years- I think it was kind of lonely. I was used to spending Christmas with family, but a lot of Tucson guys were there - familiar faces like Raul Reyes, Hector Gracia, Oscar Nunez, Albert Corral, Manny Miranda, and others. After that I was involved in "Operation Killer" and that's where I got wounded.
The First time I was wounded was March 22 1951. I was hit in the legs by shrapnel but all they did was send me back to the field hospital. It took three days to get there and three days to get back. That's what I got for not being in the Army - they'd have sent me to Japan.
The second time I got hit was in Yodong in April, this time through my chin and chest shattering my chin, part of my jaw and upper chest. They thought I had been hit through the lungs. The bullet went down my chest hit my hipbone, bounced back and came out through my armpit. I didn't know about my injuries until years later, when I was out of the Marine Corps. Harold Don related that I was strapped to a stretcher and placed in a chopper to take me to the field hospital. The chopper got hit and the other Marine in the chopper with me was killed. They fought their way out and put me on a truck then I got hit on the legs again while in the truck. I didn't know about all this until I woke up in Yokuska, Japan.
Jimmy Fisher was my corpsman. I was told they red-tagged me, said I wouldn't live and put me outside. I had lost a lot of blood. Jimmy gave an "Escapulario" (Scapular - religious symbol) which was the only thing I brought back from Korea. They had to pry my hand open to see what I holding.
Once back in Japan it took me two weeks to wake up and I didn't know where I was - I saw all the nurses in white uniforms and thought I was in heaven. I couldn't speak; my jaw was wired up; my arm was taped to my chest; and I drank through my throat so I wouldn't choke. I lost a lot of muscle - about thirty percent on my upper chest. My legs had been hit but I had no broken bones - just flesh wounds.
When I came in from Japan we landed first in Hawaii, then at Travis and then down to Balboa. Albert Corral and Henry Trujillo were on the same plane. Henry was hit on the same day and at the same time I was. While in the air we hit a pocket which caused me to start hemorrhaging and I was rushed to emergency again.
In 1981 I had implants in my jaw but they did more damage than good and in 1987 they were taken out. In 1989, more surgery. I lost all my lower teeth and some upper teeth, my jaw got fused and it injured the nerves, and I have problems with my eyes. They want to do more surgery but it is not 100% guaranteed.
When I got back to Tucson I went to work for Clark Marking Devices and worked 38 years for the same under different bosses. When the company went under I applied for early retirement. Jesus Rico was with Social Security then and he suggested that I put in for disability and six months later I got it.
I have been retired since 1991. I work around the house and we go out of town and visit places like Prescott, Chino Valley, Cottonwood and Clarkdale. My daughter lives in El Cajon, California, but two of the kids are in town. Gilbert Jr., is a tennis instructor and has his own business.
I help out a the Club (Marine Corps League), have been in the Color Guard since 1972, and my wife, Mary, does all the decorations at the Club and also helps with the food.
My nickname "Niggie" came about around the year 1935. An irrigation ditch near Anita Street, across the tracks, was where we kids would go skinny dipping in the summer and we would spend hours in the sun and get quite dark., A "colored" family moved in across the street from the Majutas and one of the boys, John, was swimming with Jimmy Rivera and I when John's sister came by looking for him. John didn't want to be found so he hid behind some bushes and Jimmy told his sister that John wasn't there but a niggie was - meaning me. The name stayed with me all this time and all my friends call me Niggie - in fact, many people don't know my real name is Gilbert - they know me only as Niggie.
Abner Reese, a Marine and bartender at the Club, works at the Veterans' Hospital. He is black. One day when I went to have my jaw x-rayed they called down to the x-ray room and asked for the file for Gilbert Romero. Over the intercom Abner hollered "Is that you, Niggie?