For more than half a century after Army Corporal Alvin R. Mendes was killed in the Korean War, his family did not visit his gravesite. That’s because he did not have one where his parents and siblings could go to place flowers on Memorial Day to honor him and to recognize the ultimate sacrifice he gave for his country and fellowmen.
All that pain ended on Veterans Day in 2015 when the Manteca Veterans Center at 580 Moffat Boulevard officially opened with the concrete-and-brick landscaped area on the north side of the building facing the busy thoroughfare was named the Alvin Mendes Plaza in memory of the Korean War hero whose body was never brought home for a proper burial.
Finally, the Mendes family had a place to gather and visit and pay their respects for the loved one whom they had buried in their hearts for more than six decades. A few months after the plaza opened, Laura Rothlin who was the youngest and the only girl among the four siblings, and her brothers Frank and John, now both nonagenarians, had a “group” photo taken - something they were never able to do. They posed behind the plaza marker that bears a photograph of their fallen soldier brother. Inscribed on the marker which was donated by the siblings is the story of Alvin Rocha Mendes’ heroism. It reads:
“Alvin Rocha Mendes was born on July 26, 1927 to Frank Rocha and Etelvina Borges Mendes in Lathrop, CA. Alvin attended schools in Lathrop and Manteca. Alvin was the brother of John R. Mendes, Frank R. Mendes and Laura Mendes Rothlin.
“Alvin was drafted into the Army on September 28, 1950 and went to basic training at Camp Carson, Colorado. Alvin arrived in Korea in March of 1951. Corporal Mendes was a member of Company 1, 3rd Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division. Alvin was killed during the day’s fighting against the enemy on August 7, 1951 on Heartbreak Ridge, Hill 487, near Yawci-San, North Korea at age 24. Alvin is officially listed as KIA/MIA (Killed in Action/Missing in Action).
“Corporal Alvin Rocha Mendes was awarded the Purple Heart, the Combat Infantryman’s Badge, the Korean Service Medal, the United Nations Service Medal, the National Defense Service Medal, the Korean Presidential Unit Citation and the Republic of Korea War Service Medal.”
no body to bury
While all the details surrounding the death of the Army corporal are known today, his family was in the dark for many heartbreaking years. For the longest time, they did not have closure. There was no body to bury. There were no personal effects that were sent home except for a partly burned identification. Scores of letters sent by the soldier’s parents and his siblings requesting for any bit of information about their loved one from American authorities chronicle those painful years. Those letters are all compiled in a ring-bound book.
Reminiscing about those heartbreaking years of not knowing what actually happened, Frank Mendes recalled a few years ago that their mother was never the same after that.
Frank also joined the service as a Navy man during World War II but unlike his brother Alvin, he never fought overseas. He was on an aircraft carrier as a radioman.
Their oldest brother John was never in the service because he had to stay home and help their parents maintain the farm. John, who had a kidney transplant several years ago, passed away on Thursday at the age of 94. Although not confirmed, he was considered the oldest to undergo the delicate operation at that time. The medical news was heightened by the fact the kidney donor was his own nephew, Raymond, the son of Frank Mendes. Prior to the transplant, John had been on dialysis for months.
Killed in Action,
Missing in Action
An official memorandum from the Defense POW/MIA Accounding Agency in Washington, D.C., dated April 6, 2015, gives a summary of the fateful war battle that claimed the life of Corporal Alvin Mendes. The detailed report vividly portrays how the Manteca soldier met his heroic end. Even with the passage of time, it’s still a difficult read.
Under the heading, “General military situation and circumstances of loss,” the official report explains in detail how Army Corporal Alvin Mendes was killed in action.
“While talks for an armistice between the United Nations Command and North Korean and Chinese representatives waned, there were many engagements along the front during the late summer and autumn months of 1951. Battles at Heartbreak Ridge, Bloody Ridge, and the Punchbowl were costly, but proved to be valuable in blunting major enemy offensives, saving many more lives in process.
“On 7 August 1951, elements of 1st and 3rd Battalions, 7th Cavalry, were located in the vicinity of Hill 487, just west of Chorwon, South Korea. 3rd Battalion, situated on Hill 365, launched an attack against Chinese-occupied Hill 487. They rushed a kilometer north of their jump off positions and, after an intense firefight, forced the enemy to withdraw from Hill 487.
“As defensive positions were being established, the Chinese launched a counter-attack but were repulsed by forward elements from the 3rd Battalion and reinforcements from the 1st Battalion. Continuous probing attacks were encountered throughout the night and enemy pressure increased further on the morning of 8 August.
“Due to extremely poor visibility, 1st and 3rd Battalion elements broke contact with the enemy and withdrew to new positions on Hill 477. The remainder of the day was spent on patrolling to determine enemy activity in the area. CPL Mendes was killed during the day’s fighting against the Chinese on 7 August 1951. Because of the intensity of this fighting, none of CPL Mendes’ fellow soldiers could recover his remains.”
A sister remembers her
brother who died a hero
Laura Rothlin, who was the baby of the family, was 17 years old when her then 23-year-old brother Alvin signed up with the Army. Alvin was six years younger than Frank who, in turn, was 11 months younger than oldest brother John. Laura said with a bit of amusement that her two older brothers were the same age for at least six days during any given year because they were both born in June.
Although Laura was the closest in age to her brother Alvin, growing up did not involve plenty of fun and games between them.
“We were never playmates. Six years is a lot of years. He was a merchant marine for many years so he was gone a lot, and I was just home with my parents. We never played together. There was too much age difference. I just remember him being an older brother,” said Laura who, with husband Arnold, owned and operated a dairy on South Airport Way. They are now retired.
The Mendes siblings, except Laura, grew up in Lathrop where their parents had a farm on the east side of the San Joaquin River near where Lathrop High School is now located. Laura was born when the family moved to a farm on McKinley Avenue between Louise Avenue and Lathrop Road. Later, their parents moved to a dairy farm on Graves Road in Manteca.
Laura said the loss of her brother Alvin was “traumatic” for the family. Her mother “always thought of it. To raise a son and have him disappear like that - it was shocking. It’s something you’ll never forget - where you were, what you were doing. I was working in Stockton.”
The Manteca Veterans Center is not the only place where the image of her brother can be found. His picture in soldier’s uniform is also among those memorialized in the Korean War mural in downtown Manteca. The mural is one of several posted on the side of the old IOOF building on the northwest corner of Yosemite Avenue and Main Street. The veterans’ mural wall is on the side of the building that is home to Manteca Bedquarters. When completed, the wall will contain murals honoring those who served in World War I, World War II, Korean War, the Vietnam Conflict, and the Gulf War. Still to be completed by the Manteca Mural Society are the Vietnam War and World War I murals.