Rejected for Decades, WWII Servicemen Receives Memorial Service
A letter written to Obama by provides green light to hold Memorial Service for Pacoima's 19 -year-old Pvt. Lewis Alvarez
Diana Martinez, Editor, San Fernando Sun
It's been sixty-eight years since U.S. Army Pvt. Lewis Alvarez, serving in World War II, was killed.
Published on LatinoLA: February 10, 2013
When Esther Alvarez, a Pacoima resident, was informed by telegram that her 19-year-old son was "Missing In Action" in the Southwest Pacific area on Feb. 11, 1945, she held out hope that he could be found and was still alive.
Primarily Spanish-speaking, she asked her daughters to help her write letters to the government requesting more information about what had happened to her son, but she didn't receive details. It was confusing. To her, "Missing in Action" meant he was simply "missing."
"I was only eight years old at the time, but I remember how upset my mother was. She would sit on our porch and cry," said daughter Mary Jimenez. "I had another brother Robert who also served during WWII, fighting in Europe. He came back wounded."
After receiving a letter saying that Alvarez was killed in action on the date that he was reported missing in action, Esther wrote another letter. Dated December 1945, the handwritten letter read:
Please send me the flag in remembrance of my son who gave his life fighting overseas, Pvt. Lewis V. Alvarez. Please send it.
Thank you, Mrs. E.V. Alvarez"
She wanted the American flag and a proper service for her son but was told that his remains were "non-recoverable" and, without a body, a military service was not possible.
One letter from the Army Service Forces in 1946, written back to her, said: "Since a report of burial has not yet been received in this office, it will be necessary for an inquiry to be made concerning the recovery of the remains before the proper decision can be made regarding the furnishing of a flag..."
"My mother felt at the very least, my brother deserved a flag," Jimenez said.
"It was very different in those days. They drafted my brothers and would even draft boys before they graduated from high school. We were very poor, we lived on Hoyt Street in Pacoima, and we would travel up north to pick tomatoes and hops."
The unanswered questions she had about her son were overwhelming and painful for her mother, Jimenez said. While she eventually did receive the American Flag and her son's Purple Heart medal, Esther still longed for him to have a military memorial service.
"She always talked about him," Jimenez said. "Even right before she died, she wondered if somehow he could still be alive." Following her mother's death in 1989, Jimenez continued the quest to have a memorial service for her brother but soon hit the same bureaucratic walls. She, too, was given the impression that a military service was not possible because there were no physical remains recovered.
She shared her family's story with Marleen Martinez Aparicio, a fellow member of the American Legion Auxiliary Unit 176 in San Fernando. Martinez Aparicio is known in the Northeast San Fernando Valley as someone who cares deeply about veterans. She has been a volunteer for Wounded Warriors and volunteered for many veterans' causes. Martinez Aparicio's son also served in the military, so she knows firsthand what it's like to be a mother of a serviceman.
"I understood why his mother was distraught for all of those years. She needed closure for her son," she said. "His life mattered and she needed to know what happened to him, to really accept that he had died."
Martinez Aparicio went to work. There were many deterring roadblocks, but after hearing from a news report that markers were placed for unrecovered servicemen, she followed up.
She found that, in accordance with the U.S. Government's program of honoring the memory of the War Dead whose remains were not recovered or identified, Pvt. Alvarez' name was permanently inscribed on the Tablets of the Missing of the Manila American Cemetery and Memorial Manila, in the Philippines.
The family never knew that a marker was there. "I thought if he has a marker in the Philippines, why couldn't he have one here closer to home, in the United States? If he can have a marker, then why couldn't he have a military service, as his mother had always wanted?" Martinez Aparicio asked.
"I contacted every organization and legislator I could think of, but I wasn't getting anywhere," she said. "I could see how difficult it was for the family to get anyone to pay attention. I contacted (Congressmen) Berman and Sherman, and every national, state and local legislator that I could find; I called them all. (U.S. Sen. Dianne) Feinstein's office, at least, returned my call."
After five years of collecting information and armed with various documents, persistent, Martinez Aparicio decided she was going to the absolute top. "Finally, I just decided to write to President Obama," she said. Following her letter to the White House, within a month and a half, she started to get some answers. She received unclassified documents and the answer to the question that Esther always wondered about: What had happened to her son?
Martinez Aparicio read the documents that confirmed that Alvarez was classified as "Missing In Action, Killed in Action and Lost at Sea." The young serviceman, in the Army infantry, was aboard the U.S. Navy vessel the LST 577 on Feb. 11, 1945, while the tanking ship was sailing from Hollandia, New Guinea to the Philippine Islands.
The ship was attacked by a [Japanese] submarine and received two direct hits mid-ship. An explosion broke the vessel in half and the entire stern section sank in a period of seconds, trapping everyone inside.
The army listed Alvarez as missing in action. There were survivors but Alvarez was not among them.
"The family never knew what actually happened, and when you get devastating news, I understand why it was difficult for his mother to understand, especially when terms 'MIA, KIA, and LAS are used," Martinez Aparicio said. "And there was also a language barrier on top of that. One of his sisters thought all these years that a plane was involved in his death."
Then after receiving the unclassified documents, the best news followed. Cherri A. Lawless, U.S. Army Human Resources Command Senior Mortuary Affairs Specialist, called Martinez Aparicio.
"She told me, on behalf of President Obama, a marker would be placed at the Riverside National Cemetery and she asked when we would like to hold a service there. She said the honor guard would be there, just tell her when."
Martinez Aparicio couldn't wait to tell Jimenez the good news. At last, more than six decades later, a military service could be held.
They decided on a date. On the anniversary of his death next week, on Feb. 11, at the Riverside National Cemetery Stage Area-6, Pvt. Alvarez will receive a memorial service befitting a serviceman. A marker has already been placed for him in Riverside.
"Taps" will be played, and Jimenez will proudly carry the flag and Purple Heart sent to her mother years ago. She also plans to bring the letter recently received from Obama.
"At least we'll have a place to take flowers now," said Jimenez, who added she almost cried when she got the news about the long awaited funeral service for her brother. "It's closer to home, I have a niece buried there and a few relatives who live nearby." Jimenez said she would probably "get emotional," during the ceremony, which will leave her with a bittersweet sentiment ÔÇô happy because his brother will finally get the recognition long overdue that their mother fought to get for him and sad because their mother, now deceased, won't be there to see it.
"My mother used to cry, always hoping that he would come back and it never happened," Jimenez said.
"I wish my mother was here. I'd been trying to get this done for so long. If it hadn't been for Marleen, I don't know what I've would have done."
"Perhaps there are other serviceman like Pvt. Alvarez who served in World War II who never received a military service because remains weren't recovered," said Martinez Aparicio. "I hope this helps other families to let them know that it can be done."
In Part 2 of this story, The San Fernando Valley Sun/El Sol will cover the service for Pvt. Alvarez on Monday, Feb 11 at 2:31 p.m. at the Riverside National Cemetery.
22495 Van Buren boulevard Riverside Stage Area-6
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Diana Martinez, Editor, San Fernando Sun:
Diana Martinez has had a long career as an award winning print and broadcast journalist and news manager running newsrooms of every size. She is currently Editor of the San Fernando Valley Sun/El Sol Newspapers and owner of L.A Media Group.
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