The Alphabet Men of C Co. First Tank Battalion
Fate is the same for the man who holds back, the same if he fights hard. We are all held in a single honor, the brave with the weaklings. A man dies still if he has done nothing, as one who has done much.Homer in The Iliad, 800 BC
At Camp Elliott in San Diego after Boot Camp in early 1943, we were "volunteered" alphabetically, A, B, C & D, for Marine Corps tank training at Jaques Farm. The Alphabet Men, of whom I was one, were Alvarez, Atkinson, Backovich, Bahde, Barwick, Brenkert, Christensen-and many others too numerous to list. Even today, almost 60 years later, I continue to ponder the mysterious fate of being thrown together with some of America's finest, only because of the alphabet.
After Jaques' Farm, fate placed us in the 17th Replacement Battalion and we loaded aboard the USS Rochambeau in San Diego together with the 18th Replacement Bn. We made a 28-day zig-zag "luxury cruise" to Melbourne, Australia. There were 4000 to 5000 troops aboard. Down Under we were carefully planted among the depleted ranks of the First Marine Division after the key battle of Guadalcanal.
We were not Marine philosophers, just green, untested-in-combat troops, but our fate continued to carry us together alphabetically, inexorably to close with a no-quarter enemy. What is fate? The dictionary gives fascinating insights: The cause beyond man's control that is held to determine events: destiny; fortune; disaster; death; outcome. There is no doubt in my mind that every living member of the so-called Greatest Generation today still ponders his survival, that of his mates, living and dead, during those crucial and exciting days. I know I do. Was it pure fate that allowed me to become life-long friends and serve alongside these fellow A, B, C & Ds?
From Jaques Farm on for about two-and-a-half years, until anti-tank, machine gun and sniper fire broke us up in the battle of Okinawa, there were four of us, Alvarez, Bahde, Brenkert and myself, who were as close as brothers through three campaigns. In August 1999, Bud Brenkert took his leave from this earth. On 17 June 1945 over Kunishi Ridge, he and Old Man Christensen rescued me from certain death. I'm forever in their debt.
The second buddy, Joe "Pearls" (the finest set of teeth in the battalion), Alvarez from San Jose, CA., on that same fateful day was at First Tank Battalion headquarters behind Kunishi Ridge. Our battalion commanding officer, Lt. Col. Arthur "Jeb" Stuart, received word by radio that a nearby infantry unit was pinned down and receiving heavy casualties not far from where our own two tanks were knocked out.
Lt. Col. Stuart, in order to make more room, ordered Alvarez to reduce his tank crew of five to two, Joe the commander and his driver, another Alphabet Man, Freeman L. Aden. Aden maneuvered the stripped down tank through the remnants of a sugar cane field, placing it between the enemy and the infantry casualties.
Alvarez dismounted from the gun turret and with complete disregard for his own personal safety, through intense sniper, machine gun and mortar fire, began to hoist wounded infantrymen onto the back of his tank. From the ground he then directed Aden to move the tank in order to pick up more stricken Marines.
In this exposed position Joe was shot in the neck and arm as he courageously lifted a wounded Marine onto his tank. Even after that he and Aden made several more trips before allowing his own wounds to be treated. Joe's "heroism and devotion to duty were an inspiration to his fellow crewmen." (From Joe's Silver Star citation.)
Later in the day, Joe and I ended up on stretchers side by side holding hands in the well deck of a Navy evacuation barge that took us out to the hospital ship, USS Solace. To this day Joe says, "I can never forget the hospital ship's high boom that hoisted us on our stretchers high in the air swaying back and forth and then our being lowered onto the deck. What a terrifying ride!"
Fate is much like that helpless, uncertain, sometimes terrifying ride swaying on a fragile stretcher, high over the Pacific Ocean's fathomless depths. No control. At the mercy of the unknown, unseen operator. Sweating it out. It's easy to become pessimistic, to lose hope, to be as Dryden described: All things are by fate, but poor blind man sees but a part of the chain, the nearest link, his eyes not reaching to that equal beam which poises above all.
Epicurus may have said it best: A strict belief in fate is the worst kind of slavery; on the other hand, there is comfort in the thought that God will be moved by our prayers.
We are not helpless victims of an unknown power and blind destiny if we exercise energizing faith, as tiny Jesus said, as a grain of mustard seed. An upturned heart to the living God and His blessed Son Jesus Christ changes a hopeless, pessimistic fate into a living hope. Fate then becomes, not our ruler, but our servant.
Have faith in God.
Lord, give me the physical and spiritual courage of Joe Alvarez. Help me to grow from mustard-seed size faith to that of a great tree for Your glory. Amen.
Jesus said, what is the kingdom of God like? And to what shall I compare it? It is like a grain of mustard seed which a man took and sowed in his garden; and it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.