Memorial Day is a time we remember those we have lost and visit their graves and memorials, not as endpoints of their lives, but as starting points — for recalling memories, for uniting families, for opening conversations. Those whom we remember never leave us, and we tell their stories to keep them close.
Some years ago, I wrote a column about Frankie Sanchez, an Army Specialist-4 from Dodge City, Kansas, who was killed in a firefight in Vietnam on Feb. 23, 1966. His father, Frank, appeared in an ABC News documentary, “A Year in a New Kind of War,” in which he read the telegram he received informing him of Frankie’s death.
I had heard Frankie’s name in an old recording of the program, and though I never knew him I made a point to find him on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall. I wondered if any of his family had had the opportunity to visit him there. With the help of the VFW I was able to contact his uncle, Isaac Sanchez — Frankie’s father having since passed away — and learned much about Frankie, as well as the service history of the Sanchez family.
An ethos of service, a family of servicemen
Frankie’s father was one of six brothers. Alvin, the oldest, was an Army infantryman who had served in the Mediterranean theater in World War II. Rudy served as a corpsman in the South Pacific and was severely wounded. Gavino landed at Normandy. Louis was sent home from the service for being color blind and became mayor of Dodge City. Isaac, who was younger, served with the Army in Korea. And Frank Sanchez, who worked on the railroad, was deemed an essential war worker and not allowed to get in the fight. The Sanchez’s were an immigrant family proud of their country and willing to do their part to defend it.
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Last year around Memorial Day, Isaac Sanchez finally had a chance to see Frankie’s name on the wall. He came to Washington on an Honor Flight, his first trip ever on an airplane, and I was privileged to accompany him and members of his family as he toured the war memorials on the western end of the National Mall. Isaac was 90 years old and had to use a wheelchair, but was mentally sharp, and as we walked the Mall he told more of his family story.
Isaac was born in 1927, one of a family of 13 kids in what was called the “Mexican Village,” a settlement on the eastern side of Dodge City comprised of immigrant railroad workers. It was near the old Santa Fe railroad roundhouse along highway 50 and bound by what Isaac remembered from his childhood as a “beautiful ravine,” which gleamed bright white as though it was painted. But the beautiful ravine was actually coated in asbestos residue from the trains, which contributed later to many deaths from disease.
Soledad Sanchez, the family patriarch, came from Mexico to work on the railroad in 1901. Isaac pointed out that he was a legal immigrant. “My Dad came over the bridge,” he said, “not under the bridge.” In the Mexican Village where he settled many people lived in tents, and houses were constructed of discarded lumber and railroad ties. There was no gas or electricity and water had to be carried from two pipe sources at the edge of the settlement. Isaac remembered his family used chipped dishes that they had scrounged from railroad discards.
Isaac encountered the discrimination of those times. If immigrants strayed too far from their barrio the police would warn them to “get back to Mexico.” As a boy, Isaac was not allowed to eat an ice cream cone at the drugstore lunch counter because he was a Mexican. It made him wonder what kind of person he was. So when he received a draft notice in 1945, he felt somehow comforted. It seemed to confirm something positive to him — that he was somebody, that he was part of things, that he belonged.
From America to Korea and back again
Isaac was sent to Korea in 1946 and vividly described the passage over the Pacific in a troop ship bunked five high. The weather was stormy, and everybody was seasick. Isaac saw two men get washed overboard in the blink of an eye. Isaac served for three years in Korea with the 6th Infantry Division, attaining the rank of sergeant.
While looking at the Korean War Memorial, Isaac summed his experience: “The winters were terrible,” he said, “and the people hated us.” In those days before the Communist invasion of the South, Americans were unwelcome guests.
“The Koreans despised the Americans,” Isaac said, “they saw us as invaders. They would kill us if they could.” He said they were ordered to have a minimum of five GIs together at all times for protection from random attacks. The Koreans “didn’t mind dying,” he said, “but we did.” He prayed to God every day to get out of there alive. We watched at the memorial as a South Korean delegation solemnly dedicated a wreath to Americans who died in the war. “Things are different now,” Isaac commented approvingly.
Isaac’s tour ended less than a year before war broke out on the peninsula, so he never saw action. He returned home to work on the railroad, then later went into property management. He married and raised a family, and pursued the American dream.
Isaac was active in politics, promoting candidates and registering voters, which he saw as an extension of his public service. He would host public forums to get people involved in civic affairs. “I was a Democrat,” he said, “but I invited all the candidates. And the Republicans loved me just as much. We all had beers at our meetings, together.” Isaac supported Hubert Humphrey in 1968 but his bipartisan spirit netted him an invitation to the 1969 Nixon inauguration, which he did not attend because it would cost too much to travel. “I was convinced we all had to work together as Americans,” he said. “I still am — more than ever now.”
Memorials — the least we can do
When word came about his nephew Frankie dying in Vietnam “it just struck,” he said. “It was very hard.” Frankie’s remains were being sent to his wife in Georgia, but his father Frank wanted a memorial in Dodge City. The Defense Department refused, but Kansas elected officials intervened for the family and the coffin was routed through Frankie’s home town.
Frankie was taken to a local funeral home with an honor guard, and the next day there was a church service where hundreds of friends and relatives turned out to say goodbye. Then the coffin was reloaded on the train and sent to Georgia.
Frank Sanchez later went to the funeral home director, Robert Swaim, who had been instrumental in setting everything up, to ask how much he owed. “You don’t owe me anything,” Swaim said. “It’s the least I can do.”
Our last stop during Isaac’s visit was the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial. Frankie Sanchez is at position 5E68, about five feet up the polished black granite panel. Isaac looked up at Frankie’s name, then shakily pushed himself up from his wheelchair, and with the help of his family, reached up to run his fingers lovingly across Frankie’s name.
At that moment a gentle sprinkle of warm spring rain came down, and everyone present wept. Isaac turned to Frankie’s son, David Joyal, who had been an infant when his father died. “You had a real nice dad, David,” he said.
Isaac Sanchez passed away on March 15th, 2019 in Garden City, Kansas.
James S. Robbins, a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors and author of “Erasing America: Losing Our Future by Destroying Our Past,” has taught at the National Defense University and the Marine Corps University and served as a special assistant in the office of the secretary of Defense in the George W. Bush administration. Follow him on Twitter: @James_Robbins.