Maderans have never shirked from doing their duty during times of conflict. This has held true in every war, including the Korean War, which Maderans joined by the trainloads to keep freedom alive.
It is also true that not every Maderan came home alive from Korea. The first local soldier to give his life in that conflict was Pfc. Tony Tavares who was killed in action on Aug. 17, 1950.
After several months of delay, Pvt. Tavares finally came home in a casket on June 1, 1951. As the gusty wind stirred every flag in town, the body of Madera’s first Korean War victim came back to the town where he had grown to manhood.
An honor guard of the American Legion Post and the Veterans of Foreign Wars received the flag-draped casket at the train depot. Six men — three from each organization — carried it along East Yosemite Avenue, preceded by a police escort to the Madera Funeral Home.
Tony Tavares was born in Madera, served in World War II, and returned home where he married Marceline (Marcy) Cross. Not long before the Korean War broke out, Tony and Marcy became the parents of a little girl, Ramona. This was to be one of the last bright spots in Tony’s short life.
In 1950, he left Madera, having reentered the army. He was sent to Korea and into the thick of the fighting. In August, His platoon was defending a position near Hill 303, a bleak bump in the terrain east of the Naktong River, a few miles northeast of the battered town of Waegwan, when the enemy began to infiltrate the U.S. lines. Tavares’ platoon leader asked battalion headquarters for reinforcements, and was told that 60 South Korean soldiers would move up shortly.
Soon afterwards, North Korean soldiers appeared from a nearby apple orchard; Tavares and his comrades assumed that they were the reinforcements. Not until the newcomers were almost on top of them did the G.I.s realize their mistake; the men were heavily armed Red troops. Seeing his men outnumbered 10 to 1, the lieutenant in charge of the platoon ordered the G.I.s to climb out of their fox holes with their hands up.
The North Koreans approached and stuck their burp guns in the stomachs of the Americans with one hand and with the other grabbed the GIs’ rifles. They then stripped the men and took their helmets, watches, and wallets. After that, they marched Tavares’ platoon to a nearby cemetery.
The first night they gave them some water and fruit — one apple for every four soldiers. The next morning the Reds got scared when U.S. mortar fire started dropping near their position. They made Tony and his comrades take off their boots and then tied their wrists with the shoestrings. That night the North Koreans tried to march their prisoners across the Naktong River, but fire from the American troops stopped them.
About 3 or 4 o’clock the afternoon of Aug. 17, 1950, they moved Tony’s platoon again — this time down near a ditch. Then came the end. The enemy soldiers shot Tony and his comrades execution style and left them for dead.
After Tony’s death, his widow moved to Las Vegas with her daughter and later relocated to the Washington D.C. area where Marcy died and Ramona had a child of her own, Jenna, granddaughter of Tony Tavares.
Like her mother, Jenna grew up knowing very little about her grandfather’s service to his country except that he was a Korean War casualty. As she got older, she was taken with a strong desire to know more about her grandfather, so “the detective in her” went to work.
Jenna began to make inquiry after inquiry. When she got to the Veterans Affairs Administration, they told her that Tony’s records had been burned in a fire in St. Louis in 1973. All they could give her was his date of birth, Army serial number, and the date he was killed in action.
In 1999, Jenna wrote a post on the Korean War Remembrance page asking for information on her grandfather. After more than a year, she got an answer from a military historian who knew that Tony had died in the “Massacre of Hill 303.” As a result of that connection, Jenna and her mother, Ramona, were contacted by a Pvt. Frederick Ryan (then almost 80 years old). He had miraculously survived the Massacre at Hill 303 and had known Tony. He was able to tell his fallen comrade’s daughter and granddaughter the circumstances surrounding his death.
Now the search seems complete. Jenna and Ramona found out how their grandfather and father died in the service of his country, And thanks to Jenna, Madera also knows the tragic story of the young man they carried up Yosemite Avenue on that windy day in June 1951 and finally put to rest.