Los Chavalones of E- Company: Extraordinary Men in Extraordinary Events

by Carlos G. Velez-Ibanez

Address given to the 40th Reunion of E Company, Tucson Arizona, July 28, 1990

It has been said that heroism is the act of ordinary men and women engaged in extraordinary actions in extraordinary events. For in fact, war, by definition is an extraordinary event for it requires the most extreme self-discipline to meet its levels of physical and psychological stress and trauma unimagined to anyone but the person undergoing it; and secondly, it requires a sense of self-sacrifice that normally few of us in any circumstances could or would conceive.

The question then arises, how then did mostly untrained, young, and inexperienced Tucsonenses who left the Tucson train station that late afternoon of July 31, 1950 not only engage in extraordinary actions in Korea, and except for the twelve brave men who were overcome in battle, in large part return home? How in fact, did most of the 225 or so mostly teen-age boots who had approximately two or slightly more than three weeks of training make the amphibious landings at Inchon, participate in bitter street -to-street fighting in Seoul, and engage and defeat a determined, skilled, and experienced enemy who outnumbered them in some cases, 10 to 1 in the frozen hills and mountains of North Korea?

It is against all logic for them to have done so. In truth few should have been able to sustain the difficulty of combat in each of these extraordinary actions without intense, constant, and lengthy training.

Amphibious assaults are tricky, dangerous, and to gain the coordination necessary takes months of repetitive training and practice in order so that relatively large bodies of men can move smoothly together.

On the other hand, to fight in cities takes an entirely different approach in which only the smallest units participate, and door-to-door fighting requires each member to cover the other in small almost mini-actions. While practice makes perfect in city combat, it is among the most harrowing and difficult to learn.

Steep hill terrain combat, most Marines will admit is the most uncompromising of all extraordinary actions and humping up and down steep hills not only takes everything out of the person but offers little in cover, concealment, or protection from a determined enemy that does not want to let you up. So to prepare for this type of combat not only requires intense conditioning, forced marches, and endurance but requires a special kind of courage of almost open terrain warfare.

Yet, for the most part, none of these ordinary young men-mostly from the barrios of Tucson, from families who lived In Menlo Park, Hollywood, El Hoyo, South Tucson, El Barrio Libre, the Reservation, and in a few cases from the Drachman neighborhood-had this training and in some cases had not even been to boot camp because they had been to two Summer camps. They learned to fire the Ml between Treasure Island and Japan.

How, then, were they able to face a Winter in North Korea--as one author puts it--"a cold howling beast?"' How were these Chicanos, Chinos, Native Americans, Jews, and Anglos from hot Tucson able to withstand a cold that froze rivers, choked the gorges with snow, and in which by day the temperature rose, hovering somewhere between zero and twenty degrees, and by night time it stood at 20 degrees below and in some cases fell below 30? How did they do it? How were they able to withstand such cold in which weapons froze, rations froze, human flesh froze, in which the carbine became a useless stick to be used only for clubbing but not much because it became too brittle and broke with the first stroke? How did these mostly 16 to 19 year old Chavalones face this awful cold which almost guaranteed frost bite and yet were able to fight off 100,000 men who were led by General Sung Shin-lun who led the 9th Chinese Army group? He had been handling men in combat since his graduation from Whampoa Military Academy at the age of 17 and had commanded a regiment on the famous Chinese Long March, and fought the Japanese for years, and was a master of warfare. In fact, General Sung Shin-lun had been specifically selected to lead his hundred thousand troops against the Chavalones of the first Marine division in order to carry out one single function--to wipe them out.

How did these ordinary kids--from largely working class homes, who had gone to Safford, Roskruge, and Tucson High, played pelota in the sandlot in front of Herbert street, ate tamales on Christmas, danced at the Blue Moon, saw Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck at the Lyric and Pedro Armendariz and Maria Felix at the Plaza, and spent Friday night's pay checks on Saturday night-confront these extraordinary events? How did they do it? I do not think that the clue lies in combat training. We know that for the most part they were unprepared and ill-trained for the extraordinary events in which these ordinary young men participated. Rather, I think it does lie in all of the other intangibles that we as a community have-- a sense of family, of responsibility, of commonality, of willingness to help others when they are down, and most of all-- a genuine love for each other as people in spite of our differences. I think, in fact, the Chavalones that left that day were already extraordinary because they came from ordinary homes that had fought in the extraordinary event of survival--surviving revolutions in Mexico, ethnocentrism and discrimination in the United States, underemployment, poor education, and lack of opportunity.

The Chavalones, that did and did not return, came from homes that represented basic values that did not surrender to conditions but rather made the best of the worst--created opportunities, and assisted others when necessary. These young men already had developed this almost invisible mental and spiritual preparation prior to Korea. For the most part, then, the Prices, the Jaymes, the Cocios, the Nacho Cruzes, the Gaspar Aldriches, the Zimmermans, the Fishers, the Suarezes, and all the others who did and those who did not return, were ready made to be heroes--for they came from extraordinary families who had set the example long before their sons joined E-Company, 13 Infantry Battalion. It was in this manner, that those who returned and those that did not were able to face the most ordurous of physical and psychological conditions.

However, what of today? Where are we? Twelve did not return and are mourned and recalled to this very moment. For most members of E Company, life returned to ordinary normalcy in spite of physical and psychic wounds. They married, had children, worked in occupations and professions. Judges, doctors, policemen, city workers, and architects, some became. Others quietly returned to what they had done before. Some even went back to high school. Yet, among us here, there are those that to this day may be suffering, almost 40 years later, the stresses of that extraordinary experience that even extraordinary families cannot remove. For some, Korea's trauma and psychological distress was not only debilitating but in fact very much defined their life path.

Therefore, I think that this reunion can serve not only as a reminder of the heroic actions of the many, of their unselfish attention to duty, of comrades fallen and not returned, and of the unsung importance of our community to meet difficult and unbearable challenges, but as well as to remind ourselves that for some, the extraordinary event of war has not yet stopped and that somehow we lend them a hand to smooth their brows, to cool their foreheads, and hold them close to our community's bosom.

Thus, this evening, we honor not only those extraordinary men of Company E who returned and those who did not, but with your permission, we also honor as well our comrades who are here but who have not yet come home from all their personal wars and all other wars.

Note:  Portions of the description of the winter conditions and the major Chinese figure mentioned were excerpted from Robert Lecke, The March to Glory, New York: Bantam Book (originally 1960, World Publishing Edition), New Edition: 1990.

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