'Morenci 9' remembered in California
By Diane Saunders, staff writer
With the sprawling branches of a lonely California live oak tree as a backdrop, a display of American flags and a few white crosses say this is a place of honor.
A large white cross bearing the names of six of the "Morenci 9" stands near the back of this patriotic display, next to a fence that still has the remnants of yellow ribbons tied to it.
The Morenci 9 joined the U.S. Marines on July 4, 1966. All nine-Robert Draper, Bradford "Stan" King, Alfred "Van" Whitmer, Larry Joe West, Jose Roberto Moncayo, Clive "Chris" Garcia Jr., David "Leroy" Cisneros, Michael D. Cranford and Joe Sorrelman- served in Vietnam. Six of them died in combat between Aug. 2, 1967, and Nov. 26, 1969, according to the Web site of the Arizona Humanities Council. Only Cisneros, Cranford and Sorrelman made it back.
Because of these deaths, Morenci had one of the highest per capita death rates in the United States during the Vietnam War, the Web site states.
Former Safford resident Fred Knight, a dentist in Cherry Valley, Calif., said the tree is estimated to be 160 years old. There are no other trees for a half-mile in either direction on a country road in California between San Bernardino and Palm Springs, he said.
In 1991, during the Persian Gulf War, an unknown person tied a huge yellow ribbon around the base of the tree and placed an American flag in front of it, Knight said. Over the course of a few months, several other flags appeared, along with letters, photos or poems written by people whose loved ones were serving in the military in the Middle East.
People have anonymously kept the unofficial memorial clean. It is periodically raked, and flags continue to appear.
Knight said more flags and small white crosses began appearing after the United States invaded Iraq. Then one day, the large white cross memorializing the Morenci 9 appeared.
"Who put it there is unknown," Knight said, adding that the cross has been there at least two years.
Knight knows about the Morenci 9. A 1965 Safford High School graduate, he was in college in New Mexico when he heard about the deaths of six of them. He was acquainted with one of them - Bobby Draper - from the football rivalry between Morenci and Safford.
Knight said he drives past the tree and flag memorial each day on his way to work. He recalled being excited and surprised at finding the Morenci 9 cross near the old tree a couple of years ago. Seeing the cross brought forth memories of home, he said.
Anyone who wants to visit the flag memorial should take I-10 west from Phoenix. Get off on the Highland Springs Road exit, which is between Banning and Beaumont, Calif. Go north to Highland Springs Road, turn right and go about one-half mile. The tree and flags are on the right.