The Morenci Nine, 50 years later....

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Dec 19, 2001
Alaska, Idaho USA

MORENCI — Joe Sorrelman walked high into the hills of Morenci, past the clearing where rows of Navajo homes had once stood. It was 1965 and a red fire hydrant was all that was left, so Sorrelman lay down beside it and made a bet with a friend.

He and the friend talked about Vietnam, the escalating war that was overtaking the country’s thoughts. “It sounds like we may have to go over there,” Sorrelman told his friend.

“Well,” the friend replied, “let’s see who’s gonna go first.”

Sorrelman’s chance came a year later, a few months before his high-school graduation. He and some of his friends settled in for last period. The teachers stood to make an announcement: A Marine Corps recruiter had come to the school. Anybody who wanted to talk with him could leave class.

“When the recruiter came in, I really didn’t hesitate,” Sorrelman said in a recent interview at his home in Glendale. “We were hearing stuff about Vietnam and how it started escalating. I wanted to go to war.”

He walked to the school counselor’s office and sat down with the recruiter. As he listened to the man’s promises of adventure, travel and fulfilling his family’s tradition of Navajo Marines, another friend walked into the office.

Sorrelman turned to Larry West, his best friend. Sorrelman had decided long before. “I’m going to enlist,” he told West.

He won his bet. The first of the Morenci Nine had signed up.

The childhood friends sat in silence as West processed the news. Both held 1-A draft cards and assumed they would be headed to Vietnam anyway. This way, they could do it on their own terms.

“OK,” West said, looking back at his friend. “I’m going to go with you.”

The mines or the military

They were out of options, they thought. In Morenci, college was a rarity, a far-off possibility reached by a handful of students each year. These boys were sons of miners, soldiers, a Navajo medicine man. They saw two options: the mines or the military.

So the recruiter found a table at the Copper Kettle cafe and waited. Five had volunteered during his visit to the high school. Three more enlisted at the restaurant. A ninth drove back from college in Tucson to join.

“Word got around that we had joined,” Sorrelman said. “It just all staggered in.”

By graduation, they were the Morenci Nine. The Class of 1966 produced eight soldiers, and one more dropped out of college to join them. Morenci had built a tradition of military service, and the Nine became its most prominent group of recruits. Their story would draw national attention from network television news and from Time magazine, which wrote about their scrappy athletic exploits and "patriotic camaraderie."

The Nine reached across their segregated small town — five were white, three Hispanic and one Navajo. They left 50 years ago, underneath the fireworks of Independence Day.

The scene repeated itself across the country. Left with few options to leave their small farming or mining towns, thousands of young men turned to the military.

“It’s very representative,” said Arizona State University history professor Kyle Longley, who spent five years writing a book on the Morenci Nine, "The Morenci Marines: A Tale of Small Town America and the Vietnam War." “Not just the men, which are very important, but it’s also a community.”

The Nine hadn’t planned to join together. They were only the loosest of friends, kept apart by their race. At school, the Hispanic students kept to themselves, and Native Americans grouped with the white kids. When they played cowboys and Indians as kids, Sorrelman’s white friends made him be the Cowboy, never the Indian.

“We weren’t really that good of friends, to tell the truth,” Sorrelman said. “I don’t know how this Morenci Nine started.”

The Marine Corps brought them together. When Sorrelman failed his entry exam, the others refused to proceed without him. He passed on the second try.

As teenagers around the country protested the war in Vietnam, the Morenci Nine rushed toward it. Since then, the town has been buried and rebuilt, unrecognizable to the boys who left it behind.

Sorrelman doesn’t visit his hometown often, he said. He doesn’t know many people there anymore. But when he does, the town remembers him and the Morenci Nine.

'I guess we were naive'

Somewhere, maybe in her mind, Joyce Cranford has a picture of the day her husband, Mike, left.

“I can see the shirt he’s wearing,” she said. It’s a blue-and-white plaid shirt, short-sleeved with flecks of black. “He’s standing at the door, looking at me.”

On July 4, 1966, the Nine met at a Texaco station in Morenci. One by one they boarded a Greyhound bus bound for boot camp in San Diego.

If Joyce’s photo exists, that’s when she took it — as Mike stepped into a bus, filled with his friends like it was for so many Friday night football games.

They were sorted into Training Platoon 1055, B Company, First Battalion. The recruiter had promised their platoon would be entirely from Arizona, but that didn’t happen. After eight weeks of camp and a few days’ leave, they received their assignments.

Sorrelman, West, Bobby Dale Draper and Leroy Cisneros boarded a ship and left for Vietnam. Cranford stayed in California, assigned to radio-transmission training. Stanley King, Van Whitmer, Robert Moncayo and Clive Garcia were deployed throughout the next two years.

The Nine were split apart for the first time, scattered throughout Vietnam and West Coast military bases. They learned of the others’ movements through letters, both from each other and family in Morenci.

“We were 18 years old, looking for adventures,” Sorrelman said later. “People had a sense of honor, of doing stuff for America. I guess we were naive.”

Then Bobby Dale Draper died.

In August 1967, the Cranfords, Mike and Joyce, were living just off a military base in California. Their small apartment didn’t have a phone, so Joyce walked to a local park to call her parents.

Her mother picked up. “Bobby Dale’s dead,” she told her. Joyce hung up and ran home to Mike.

Stanley King was killed three months later. By the end of 1969, four others were killed: Van Whitmer, Larry West, Robert Moncayo and Clive Garcia.

“We all became closer when they started dying,” Joyce said. She and Mike went to Garcia’s funeral, but stayed away from the other five. “I just couldn’t. All those boys, they were family. They still are.”

Nine boys had packed into that small bus at the Texaco station. Only Sorrelman, Cranford and Cisneros came home. All three moved back to Morenci and took jobs in the mines, working until a strike crippled the town in 1983. From there, they spread across the state, still connected by the friends they left in Vietnam.

They came to Cranford in his dreams. He saw West most often, stranded, still fighting a war that had ended decades before.

Until the day he died, Joyce said, her husband still believed Larry West was alive in the jungle.

A town and the memory of the Nine

Every morning and afternoon, Morenci High School’s 400 students walk past them.

They watch over the school, their portraits hung across the hallway from the front office. Art students sketched each man in pencil and framed the sketches, tacked just above a folded flag.

Outside the double doors, their names are set in stone. When a new high school was built in 1983, the monument to the Nine was put near the front entrance. They did the best they could. A plaque with nine names was set in a chunk of copper ore. A flagpole stands beside it.

The copper ore has turned green. Their names have started to erode.

“We’ll make sure that they’re not forgotten,” Morenci High Principal Bryan Boling said. Born and raised in Morenci, Boling was 3 years old when the Nine enlisted.

“The Morenci Nine has always been community lore," he said, "something that people have always been proud of.”

Next to the glass-enclosed display hang six sepia-toned photos, reminders of the town the Nine left behind.

The old high school, gone. The drive-in movie theater; the bright-white hotel, stark against the black hills behind it; hundreds of homes stilted against the hills. All ripped down.

“Gosh, it was just a beautiful place,” Boling said. “This whole town is just gone.”

The Morenci that raised the Nine was a small but thriving mining town, unofficially segregated: Native Americans in Tent City, Latinos in Site Two, whites in Plantsite.

Phelps Dodge, the mining company that controlled Morenci, ended segregation in 1969. Then it found copper ore underneath the town.

The mine stretched and sprawled, reaching homes and storefronts in the early 1970s. The company owned all of the buildings, so it started knocking them down and rebuilding them out of the way.

By the mid-1980s, “old town Morenci” had been erased. The old high school, built with reinforced concrete for extra strength, couldn’t be torn down — the company just buried it.

“I never really go back to Morenci,” Sorrelman said. “It’s not the same no more.”

Today’s Morenci is a spiral of near-identical homes, built in a rush after the originals were knocked down. The mining company still owns all of the houses, and people filter in and out, taking work whenever it’s available. Outside of the mines and the school, there’s little to occupy time.

It’s still a one-industry town. Most Morenci High graduates either stay in Morenci, working in the mines, or go to college and come back. A few join the military — this year, two high-school seniors enlisted before graduating.

When the Nine were boys, Morenci had about 6,000 residents. A massive Phelps Dodge union strike and advances in technology forced most of those people away. Today, about 1,500 people remain. Phelps Dodge was acquired by Freeport-McMoRan in 2007.

“This mine pretty much supports the whole area,” Boling said, pointing at the hills around him. “We’re not exposed to the real world. We’re behind the times, but that’s a good thing.”

The largest patch of green in town is the Morenci High football stadium, flooding the hills with light every fall.

For 81 years, the Wildcats played neighboring Clifton High School, the winner claiming a foot-long hunk of metal known as the Copper Ingot. The rivalry stopped when Clifton closed its schools in 2014.

Led by star linebacker Bobby Dale Draper, Morenci's Class of 1966 kept the Copper Ingot all four years of high school.

'... leave it alone'

There’s a recliner facing the wall in the bedroom of Sorrelman’s Glendale home. After his shifts guarding the door at a local casino, he leans back in the chair and looks up at his friends.

He keeps their photos on the wall, scattered among his Marine Corps caps and old yearbooks. Larry West’s old lighter sits high above his bed. “A place of honor,” he called it.

They’re there when he goes to sleep, still there when he wakes up.

“From there, memories come back,” he said. “Not hardly a day goes by that I don’t think about them.”

A heart attack killed Cranford in 2007. Cisneros died in 2012, leaving Sorrelman as the lone survivor. Bonded like family, he still calls Joyce Cranford regularly. Their sons consider each other brothers.

A few years ago, a history professor mailed a box to Sorrelman’s house. In it, the professor told him, were copies of Larry West’s letters from Vietnam.

“I pick it up to open it,” Sorrelman said, “and something tells me just to leave it alone.”

Fifty years have passed since the Morenci Nine left for Vietnam, three years since that package arrived on Sorrelman’s doorstep. Underneath a thin layer of cardboard and shipping tape, his best friend’s last words home wait for him.

He still can’t make himself open the box.

Rick Courtright

Mar 10, 2002
Redlands CA USA

This story brings up memories and feelings long lost. And it reminds me of a show I saw once. One of the young men spoke of honor. The show was about a young Marine "coming home" after giving his life in one of the sandboxes. He was given a military funeral, then a second one. You see, he was a Lakota Sioux, too. His second funeral was a warrior's funeral from the Sioux culture. It was hard to keep the screen clear.

As the show progressed, they talked about the fact the Lakota have a prominent representation in the USMC. One of the Marines at this young man's funeral was asked about that. He answered about those feelings of honor, duty to country and such the Morenci Nine exhibited. He was asked why so many from his tribe would fight "the white man's wars."

His answer was simple. From memory: "This land was ours before the white man came. Both of us fight for the same thing. OUR country."

Rick C


Feb 10, 2017
Ric C...

I absolutely LOVE your quote...and I am going to take it to heart!

As a Viet Nam Vet, the son of a Vietnam Vet, the brother of a Viet Nam Vet who was KIA in 1965, and the son of an Iraq war vet...this was a moving post.

We were all Army.

I didn't come from a small town, rather I was an Army Brat. I never really had a home town, per se. I considered the Army my home as a child and I adopted Fayetteville, NC as my home town, since I graduated from Highshool there in 1968.

WWII had the Sullivan Brothers. Viet Nam had the Morenci Nine. I am certain the Iraq War and our War in Afghanistan will have their contribution to US Military history as well.
Jan 20, 2008
Orange County, CA
Wonderful mostly unknown history--thanks for it!

To the few people that even have heard the name, "Morenci" usually recalls the very beautiful form of turquoise that was associated with the copper deposits near there.

But its reality is much more connected with the dirty ore that real working people blasted out of the earth to make the world's electricity flow (and bullets fly) than with beautiful gems hanging on rich peoples' necks and fingers.

This is what happens when you "turn over the rock." Sometimes what's under it isn't beautiful, but at least it's real. And in a world of increasingly "virtual" reality, that's a wondrous thing.

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