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Tony Tavares, the first Maderan to die in the Korean War

November 9, 2019

Madera County Historical Society

Pfc. Tony Tavares was the first soldier from Madera to die in the Korean War in 1950.

On Monday, Madera will join the rest of the nation to observe Veterans Day, and once again, as it always does on November 11, my mind goes back to the Korean War. I am reminded of Private First Class Tony Tavares, the first soldier from Madera killed in that war. I am also reminded of his granddaughter and her indefatigable efforts to find her grandfather.

 

I first learned of Tavares while writing a short history of Madera that was published in 2007. I told how Tony’s body was brought home in 1951 and buried with full military honors. What I didn’t know, however, was precisely how Private Tavares met his end. That information came in a surprise phone call from northern Virginia. The caller was Jenna Rivera, 34-year-old granddaughter of Tony Tavares. She told me about the horrific circumstances of her grandfather’s death at the hands of his North Korean captors in the “Massacre at Hill 303.” 

 

Tony was born in Madera and had served in World War II. When he returned home, he married Marceline (Marcy) Cross. Not long before the Korean War broke out, Tony and Marcy became the parents of a little girl, Ramona, and in time, she would become the mother of Jenna Rivera, Tony’s granddaughter.

 

In 1950, when the Korean War broke out, Tony 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 their other grabbed the G.I.s’ 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 on the afternoon of August 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. 

 

Private First Class Tony 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 returned 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 car escort to the Madera Funeral Home. Madera did its best to honor its first fallen hero from the Korean War.

 

And now, 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 — Private First Class Tony Tavares — the soldier from Madera who gave his life so that we might live free.

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