Neto's Tucson: E Company survivors are hermanos forever

2014-07-20T00:00:00Z 2014-07-21T13:22:28Z Neto's Tucson: E Company survivors are hermanos foreverErnesto Portillo Jr. Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

It was 1949, four years after the end of a destructive global war, and some of Tucson’s barrio boys were itching to join the military.

“Most of my friends in the neighborhood, in South Tucson, were joining and my two cousins,” said Edward Lovio.

Gilbert Romero’s older cousin, a World War II vet, encouraged him to sign up. He did, as did his primo, Henry Valdenegro; both were from Barrio Viejo.

They joined a Marine Corps reserve unit, known as Easy Company, 13th Infantry Battalion. But a year later it was anything but easy as more than 230 E-Company reservists were activated and sent to the Korean peninsula to engage in a new war.

The remaining veterans, who are in their 80s, and spouses, children and friends, gathered Saturday for a reunion at the Marine Corps League Detachment club on East 29th Street in South Tucson to catch up with each other and remember those who are no longer alive.

But being Tucsonenses and Marines, they still had a good time, drank beer and told tales. “Problem is we can’t tell lies,” said Lovio, who after the war joined the Tucson Fire Department and retired as a battalion chief. “We were all there.”

Easy Company holds a special place in Tucson’s history. The unit was largely composed of Chicanos, sons and grandsons of Mexican immigrants. They were lured to join because it was something to do and because they could earn a few extra bucks.

Lovio joined the day after he turned 17, a year shy of the minimum. His two cousins also joined the reserves. Henry Parra was 18 and Albert Armenta was 16. No one checked ages or parents’ signatures, Lovio said.

Once the Tucson Marines arrived to the front lines, they quickly grew up.

When Lovio arrived on April Fool’s Day, 1951 — after he turned 18 because his mother informed the Department of Navy of his true age — he was sent to the front as a forward observer for an artillery unit.

On patrol one day, at the back of his small column, an explosion sent Lovio flying about 15 feet. Shrapnel in his left side kept him out of action for two weeks. Medics patched him and sent Lovio back to the front.

Romero did not return to battle after he was wounded. Doctors thought he was dead.

Romero arrived in Inchon, Korea, on Sept. 15, 1950, Mexican day of independence. For the Mexican-American servicemen, it was a day of celebration. But there was nothing festive about the war.

Early the following year, after the battleground began to thaw, Romero was wounded in his leg and back he went. But in April 1951, Romero experienced a miracle.

A machine gun raked his unit on a mountain slope. A bullet struck his chin, shattering it, shredding his jaw and most of his teeth. A second round pierced his chest.

He was evacuated on a chopper but enemy fire brought it down. Soldiers took him down the mountain on a stretcher and he was put on a truck.

The truck was ambushed. Romero was hit twice in his right leg. The convoy resumed and was again attacked. Romero again was wounded, in his left leg.

At the field hospital the doctors said the unconscious Romero would not survive. But a medic recognized Romero as a fellow Tucsonan and E Company Marine.

The medic, William Fisher, who would later serve as a longtime educator in the Tucson Unified School District, put a scapular, a religious item, in Romero’s hands. When he arrived at a military hospital in Japan, Romero, who received two Purple Hearts, was still clinging to the scapular.

On Saturday, a color guard presented the flag and the 14 names of E Company Marines who died since the last reunion in 2010 were read aloud: Angel Angulo, Rudy Arriaga, Angel Carranza, Robert Castro, Benny Cruz, Geo Granillo, Ernest Higuera, Hector Leon, Hector Morales, Marty Ramirez, William G. Valenzuela, George Oxman, William Fisher and Sam Carpio.

With less than 70 of its Marines remaining, E Company is dwindling. Semper Fi.

Ernesto “Neto” Portillo Jr. is editor of La Estrella de Tucsón. Contact him at netopjr@tucson.com or at 573-4187.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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