Decades after Vietnam, memory of Morenci Nine preserved
MORENCI — As a teenager, Pearl Guzzo grew used to the idea that many from this mining community would inevitably head off to fight in Vietnam.
So she didn’t think it out of the ordinary when nine Morenci High School graduates, young men she recalls greeting in passing around town, enlisted in the Marine Corps as a group.
“To me, it was that the guys who were seniors were destined to go,” Guzzo said at her home in neighboring Clifton.
But the community began to take more notice as Marines came to town over and over to notify families that members of the group had been killed in action.
It began with Bobby Draper in August 1967. Then Stanley King, Van Whitmer, Larry West, Jose Moncayo and, finally, Clive Garcia Jr.
Only Leroy Cisneros, Mike Cranford and Joe Sorrelman came home alive.
“There was a funeral every month,” Guzzo said. “That went on for a while.”
Then came national attention as outlets such as Time Magazine and the Los Angeles Times arrived to tell the story of a group that came to be known as the Morenci Nine.
“It’s sad that that’s how they got their recognition,” Guzzo said. “It’s sad because they’re gone.”
'War is hell'
Sitting in his living room in Yuma more than four decades later, Leroy Cisneros said Morenci Nine didn’t see their service as anything spectacular. They just went.
“We didn’t think about it, what impact it would have,” said Cisneros, who as a member of the 1st Reconnaissance Battalion scouted areas that often came under attack. “I think we were kind of naive.”
They were a diverse group. Cisneros is Latino, as were Garcia and Moncayo. Joe Sorrelman, who also returned to Morenci, is Native American.
They went through boot camp together in San Diego, then received different specialties and deployed to their separate stations.
Cisneros said he happened to meet up with Bobby Draper while both were in the same area for a few days in Vietnam, and they planned a grand party they wanted upon their return home.
“All we talked about was coming to Morenci,” he said.
Draper was killed about a week after that when his squad was ambushed.
“We thought hopefully everybody would come back, but war is hell,” he said.
The story of the Morenci Nine is representative of how many rural communities give “the toughest, the hardest-nosed people” to the war effort, said Kyle Longley, an Arizona State University professor who is writing his second book that discusses the nine.
“It’s part of the sense of sacrifice that the state has made for the country,” he said.
Longley said their story is particularly interesting because they are diverse in ethnic backgrounds.
“Suddenly you have a story that blends miners, the salt-of-the-Earth people who built Arizona, with Mexican Americans, with Native Americans,” he said.
Cisneros said he and his friends didn’t contemplate how their story would impact Arizona history. His father and grandfather had served, as had many of the others’ family members, and they all grew up honoring the veterans in their community.
“We were just trying to keep the tradition, do our part,” he said.
His hope now is that his friends and others who made the ultimate sacrifice are remembered.
“Don’t let them be forgotten,” he said. “I truly believe they all died doing something they believed in.”
Cisneros is one of two living members of the Morenci Nine; Mike Cranford passed away 2007.
Marshall Trimble, Arizona’s state historian, said while many from rural areas serve, the story of the Morenci Nine stands out because so many of them didn’t come home. He said groups of small-town warriors like the nine are a tough loss because of their potential.
“Some of the best are the ones who feel obligated to serve, and it’s a noble calling,” he said. “When they don’t come home, think what they might have become.”
Keeping the story alive
Oscar Urrea, who grew up with the Morenci Nine and served in Vietnam with the Army, stands next to a hillside road, pointing out where he and the others played football at Morenci High School.
But the field, the high school and the old town’s other buildings are gone now, torn down and replaced by an open pit as the copper mine expanded and Phelps Dodge moved the town.
“All we have is a memory of our little town,” he said.
Urrea traveled from his home in Gilbert to take a reporter on a tour of Morenci and highlight places significant to the nine.
There’s a plaque bearing their names at the relocated Morenci High School. Clive Garcia’s grave lies among other veterans’ in Bunkers Cemetery.
He said it’s important to keep the story alive because the nine represent the patriotism that many in that area carry with them.
“The uniform displayed a sense of true commitment to our country and our community,” he said.
In order to honor the sacrifice of the Morenci Nine and other young men and women who have died in their country’s service, Urrea said, people need to cherish their liberty.
“In spite of the loss that the families and friends will have to endure, it’s a commitment that we all make when we serve,” he said. “That commitment is to never give up your rights and this freedom that these soldiers, these warriors, have fought for and died for.”
At one point, Urrea hiked to the top of Mares Bluff, overlooking Clifton, with fellow Vietnam veteran Stephen Guzzo. There, Guzzo has created a memorial, which he calls the Long Walk for Freedom, that includes flags, a fallen soldier’s cross and a string of more than 1,800 dog tags to honor all who serve. The first six honor the Morenci Nine.
Names from the nine are among those on a plaque dedicated to the 12 area residents who died in Vietnam. A Bible resting in a wooden box with a cross signifies the importance of faith, and another box has a book filled with visitors’ comments.
“Made it up here and thought it would never be possible, but found my grandpa’s tag,” one read.
Guzzo, who served in Army, said it was important for him to pay respects to the Morenci Nine because their group suffered an extraordinary loss.
“What brought it home, what made the impact, was the Morenci Nine,” he said.
But to Guzzo the memorial is about all who have served.
“We can’t forget our other people, either,” he said.