Vicente L. Suarez
I was born in Tucson on the 22nd of January, 1927, and was raised in the downtown barrio near where the Tucson Community Center now stands. The streets and back yards were our playgrounds. We'd play with toys - marbles and even milk bottle caps. We would try to slap the opponent's cap with one of ours and if it landed touching, we could claim the opponent's cap. Then there was a game we played with baseball cards, which we would toss up in the air and if both fell heads or tails, whoever called it, got to keep them.
I was also the neighborhood story teller. We would sit on the street curb and I would make up stories on every subject imaginable. I remember my cousin Edgar's eyes would narrow and then open wide as he tried to visualize the story. If he didn't quite like the way the story was heading, he would interrupt and change my story to please himself. It was funny, the innocent way we used to entertain ourselves. These were the days before television and there weren't too many radios.
My mother raised me by herself so I took care of a few household chores - cleaning house and chopping wood for the stove. She expected me to be home when she got home from work and to have the coffee ready. I remember there was a cloth sack that served as a filter which went into the coffee pot and you would keep adding fresh coffee grounds to the old until it was full and then you would throw the old grounds, rinse the sack and start all over again.
Of course, I also chopped wood for the stove. I would have the fire in the stove going for my mother when she got home from work so she could fix supper. On Saturday night we had to heat up the water for our weekly bath - whether we needed it or not!
When I started school I remember my mother taking me to register. I spoke no English and neither did my mother, but most of the teachers were bilingual even though they were mostly Anglo. My mother said, "Here he is, teach him. If he acts bad, beat him." You didn't dare tell my mother you had gotten a spanking at school because if you did, she would give you another one. Then, there was the time I got in a fight with another kid and he tore my shirt; the beating I got in the fight was nothing compared with the one I got at home. And so, I started my education at Drachman Elementary School.
While I was at Drachman, I was sent to Preventorium, which was located where the Old Tucson movie location was later built. The Preventorium was for kids who were undernourished and susceptible to tuberculosis. We ate and slept there and it was like a camp. In the summer we would be taken to another camp on the high ground at Oracle, Arizona. When I came back, I started Safford Junior High School in the seventh grade.
Going back to the Old Tucson location, when they built the movie set in 1939-1940, Bobby Alvarez had a speaking part in the movie "Arizona" - he asked William Holden if he could water his horse. Seems like half the population of Tucson was in that movie, including my father, who played an Indian.
I was a ninth-grader at Safford Elementary when Pearl Harbor was bombed. Next door to us lived the Oyamas - Henry, his sister Rose and their mother, at 296 South Convent. Boy, was my mother mad when the federal people came to take the Oyamas to an internment camp. The Oyamas were pretty well liked and the whole neighborhood was up in arms. Henry and Rosie were given their final tests to allow them to graduate from Junior High before being taken to Poston Internment Camp near Parker, Arizona. A little over a year later, satisfied that the Oyamas did not pose a threat to America, Henry and his mother were sent to Excelsior Springs, Missouri to bolster the American work force. Henry worked at the Elms Hotel and his mother did housework for the wealthy Emanuel Norquist. Later, at Kansas City, Henry worked for the Aluminum Company of America and was drafted into the army in January of 1945. After basic training, he was sent to a special school to learn to read Japanese because he was needed as an interpreter in the Pacific Theater of War. They didn't believe him when he told them he didn't speak Japanese and when they were satisfied he was telling the truth, and since he knew Spanish, they sent him to work undercover in Panama. After his discharge he attended the University of Arizona under the R.O.T.C. Program, received a commission in the Air Force Reserve and retired a lieutenant colonel. At the same time, he had an illustrious career as an educator - not bad for the kid from the barrio, huh?
I remember Hector Hansen talked Ruben Moreno and me into joining "E" Company of the Marine Reserves. We all had previous service - Ruben in the Navy, Hector in the Army, and I had been drafted in 1945. I was sent to Fort McArthur and then to Camp Roberts. North Carolina was my next stop, then to Fort McPherson in Atlanta, Georgia, where I was honorably discharged at the convenience of the government.
We joined "E" Company in 1949. Hector and I were working at Power and Home Equipment Company, and we attended one summer camp in 1949, and another in 1950, where we made an amphibious landing on Las Pulgas Beach, north of Oceanside, California. We had a lot of practice going up and down the cargo nets and into the landing crafts. That's where I really got seasick, and I was so glad to get ashore. I didn't even care if the enemy won!
Shortly after we came back from the last summer camp we were activated for the Korean War. The ten days before we left Tucson were pretty hectic. I quit my job and reported to the training center on Alvernon at 22nd Street, where I helped put the equipment in order, registered serial numbers, and generally, just doing what had to be done. I can still see Jimmy Fisher, our corpsman, in a white hospital smock drenched in blood and with a big smile on his face. He was in his glory, drawing blood to classify blood types, and one of the guys almost fainted when he saw him.
Of course, we had the evenings off and I recall we had a couple of farewell parties, one at the Cocio-Estrada American Legion Post and another at the V.F.W. on Broadway. It was a happy time. We didn't dare think of what lay ahead (or maybe we thought we were going to the West Coast to relieve the fighting Marines [regulars] so they could go fight the war). The good-byes were tough at the train station. It seemed that the entire Mexican population had turned out to see us off.
When we got to Camp Pendleton, our M.O.S. was thrown out and we were reclassified. A sergeant looked at my civilian occupation and said, "You're going to be a truck driver." I told him I didn't know anything about big trucks. All I drove was a pickup, so he let me through. Down the line, a lieutenant said, "What's this? You don't want to be a truck driver? Nope! You're a truck driver!" So I walked out of that tent with a 3531 M.O.S. number.
We sailed from San Diego, headed for Kobe, Japan, along with the rest of the lst Regiment. At Kobe, the 2nd Battalion was sent to Camp Otsu for intensive training, since they were supposed to be on the first wave landing on Blue Beach at Inchon. We were on board ship, combat loading, when a typhoon hit! What a Chinese fire drill that was! The ship's lines started to break when those huge waves came in and the ship was listing, first to port and then to starboard. They had us running from one side to the other to shift the load, then they had us go down after our weapons, then down again to drop our weapons, and finally they had us go off the ship on liberty We had been given twenty dollars in scrip when we arrived at Kobe, which was in a blackout from the storm. It didn't take long to run out of money so we were almost broke when time came to get back to the ship. We pooled what money we had and hired a rickshaw, the twenty of us got in. I tell you, that poor Japanese was pulling a load!
We landed at Inchon on the 17th of September. Eight of us were to be assigned to "Able" Company to transport whatever gear they needed to move. I got to see General McArthur shortly after we landed. He was pretty well guarded, on his way to see how the Marines were doing. We spent a lot of driving time hauling troops and ammo from Inchon to Yongdungpo.
After Seoul was taken, we boarded ship to make the Wonsan landing, where we got some winter gear, shoe packs and a parka. We needed more but never got it. Boy, was it cold!
We were officially part of "Able" Company, lst Motor Transport. Tommy Price, Ray Salcido, Robert Castro and Jimmy Ward were some of the other Tucsonans in the outfit.
We made runs all the way to Hugaruri and those mountain roads were treacherous. The M.P.'s controlled the traffic. The road was just wide enough for one truck and sometimes the outside wheel of the duals would be hanging in the air. Once our convoy made the trip going up, we had to wait for the tail to catch up before we could start down. Coming down, we had to use the lowest gear to control the slipping and sliding on the icy road. If there were men riding in the back, they had to be ready to jump out in case we started going over the precipice.
When we got the word that the Division was coming down from the reservoir, "Able" Company was set up at the railhead. We loaded up equipment and supplies and made a run to Hamhung. The next day we started back to the railhead, empty. We never made it all the way. We were ambushed by the Chinese who had gotten behind our lines. We lost seven trucks and the lieutenant and his jeep. We walked out of there, back to an army outfit; six hours later, we started back with an Army platoon. I remember the Army lieutenant telling us to filter in with the Army because they had never been in combat. Truck drivers were going to teach the Army how to fight? As it turned out, we were stopped by the Chinese before we got to the trucks. The Marines coming down had to fight through these Chinese.
We were on the same transport with the British Royal Marines when we pulled out of Hungnam headed for Pusan. From Pusan, we went to Masan, where the division regrouped. We spent Christmas there. A lot more guys from Tucson showed up there as replacements.
We were kept busy during "Operation Killer" running troops and supplies to the front lines. During a lull in the fighting, our trucks were used to pick up the wreckage along the roads. While we were doing this, every once in a while someone would snipe at us. You could hear the rounds whiz by. Luckily no one near me got hit.
There was a spot near Wonju that I remember smelling awful. I couldn't tell what it was. I even picked up some snow to smell it, thinking, that might be what stunk. Then we came across an area where there were a lot of half-buried Chinese. There were even some mules which they used to transport supplies in there. In their haste to get out of there, they didn't have time to finish burying their dead.
Albert "Popeye" Corrales from Tucson's "E" Company, who came in as a replacement in Masan, got hit bad on "Operation Killer". His outfit was resting by the side of the road and I waved at him as our convoy went by. Further up the road our lead jeep was fired on, so we got the word to turn around. As we went by, "Popeye's" outfit was already advancing. Shortly after that, he was out of action.
I received a package in Masan with my name and even by middle initial, except that it was from Detroit, addressed to the 2nd Replacement Draft and the service number didn't match. The gang that had gathered around was also disappointed when I returned it.
My wife would periodically send me some tortillas. Sometimes they'd be moldy by the time they got to me. I would tear off the green part and toast what was left. I remember one guy saying, "Hey! I like these Mexican crackers!"
Going back to the railhead up north, I remember we were divided into two groups of about ten each. We were to dig in, opposite a creek from each other. Davie Cazares from Texas and I paired off and started filling sand bags to form a wall around us. All of a sudden we heard the first plop! Then, someone hollered, "Mortars!" The systematic "walking" of the mortars started toward us! I counted twenty-five rounds. The twenty-fourth hit our sand bags and the twenty-fifth hit one-hundred yards away. All the time, Davie was trying to pray, but all that came out was, "Hail, Mary! Hail, Mary! Hail, Mary!..." Let me tell you, I was just as scared!
Another time that things got hot was when we were with the army outfit headed for the ambushed convoy. I was with a bunch of young kids in a recoilless-rifle team, finding cover behind a boulder which the Chinese were chipping away at with a machine gun. The lieutenant signaled for me to move forward when the slugs were still hitting the boulder. I say to myself, "He must be kidding!" But being a good Marine, I did as I was told and as I did, the Chinese picked another target. I'm laying behind another barrier, catching my breath, thinking, "There's nothing to it! It's just a matter of timing - and a hell of a lot of luck!"
In July of 1951, when replacements became plentiful, I was told I had enough points to be sent home, so I headed for Pusan. But when I got there, they checked my records and told me I didn't have enough previous service to qualify. So they sent me back. It seems Sergeant "Lindy" Mariscal had shorted me one year on my previous army time. We can blame the beer that "Lindy" was having when he typed my records for the mistake.
Back behind the wheel, I was hauling Baley Bridge Spans when one of my front tires blew out. The load was so top heavy that the truck went off the road and rolled over. I thought I was going to be crushed. But in typical Marine fashion, they picked me up, dusted me off, rolled the truck right-side up, checked the oil and sent me on my way.
In August I was sent to Pusan again. The guys with previous service were taken to a tent where a lot of praise and flag waving went on. They were trying to talk us into re-enlisting. They just about had me talked into it when they finished by saying, "Or would you rather go home?" It's amazing how we were all willing to let somebody else have a chance at being a hero.
A funny thing happened when we got to San Diego. They had us give them a stool sample. One guy was having trouble producing one, so his buddy in the next stall says, "Here, give me it. I'll give you some of mine." They were the only two detained to be treated for worms.
Thinking back, being in the Korean War and part of history was a great experience, now that I'm home. But when I was out there, there was always a little anxiety, not really scared, but always apprehensive about what was ahead. What helped me a lot was meeting a familiar face from Tucson from time to time, and there was quite a few of us out there. When we would get together, I'd play my guitar and everyone would join in the singing. What a morale booster that was! There's a lot of good to be said about music!