Mark M. Alonso, 87, of Grand Rapids, Michigan, and formerly of Anna Maria, died July 12. He was born July 28, 1926, in Bilbao, Spain.
Mr. Alonso was a furniture designer in New York City before moving his family to Grand Rapids, where he operated his own business, Mark’s Asphalt Paving.
He was a U.S. Army veteran of World War II and the Korean War. He entered the service after jumping ship from a British freighter docked in Philadelphia during WWII and volunteering for the draft.
He married Miren Sesumaga on July 28, 1953, in Santurce, Spain. They celebrated their 61st wedding anniversary last year.
He almost always wore a patriotic headband. He was an eclectic artist, well known for riding the city streets and in parades on a three-wheel bike, ringing his bell — a call to come out and chat. His art work included likenesses of Florida birds made from “parts” he found while walking the beach — branches, coconuts, shells and the like.
He also frequently visited friends while paddling a kayak or canoe in Anna Maria’s canals.
He ran unsuccessfully for a seat on the city commission in Anna Maria in 2008.
No service had been planned at press time for The Islander.
Mr. Alonso is survived by wife, Miren, of Grand Rapids; daughter Virginia of Sarasota, sons and daughters Billy, Mark, Susi, John and Pam of Grand Rapids; grandchildren Vincent and Austin Harriger, Madeline, Abigail, Olivia, Cortnee, Katie Magnuson, Benjamin, Anthony, Elisia, Miren and Gillian Lazzarini, Calista, Audrey, Evan and Maggie; and great-grandchildren Keegan, Isabelle, Lilly, Dillon, Ethan, Sophia and Eva.
INCLUDED BELOW: Mr. Alonso’s Greatest Generation story by reporter/columnist Rick Catlin.
Greatest Generation: A Basque’s fight for America
What would you do to fight for America?
Would you leave your hometown without your parents as an 11-year-old refugee to a country where you didn’t speak the language?
Would you leave the relatively safe confines of a refugee camp as a teenager for a life on the streets of a strange city?
Would you sign on as a crew member of a merchant ship, just for the chance to get to America, and would you jump ship with no papers and no money once you got there?
Would you volunteer to be drafted into the U.S. Army, just for the chance to fight for a country when you weren’t even a citizen?
Would you do all that just for freedom?
Anna Maria resident Mark Alonso has had a remarkable journey from his native Basque town of Guernica, Spain, to Anna Maria.
Along the way, Alonso fought the Nazis and fascism in the Spanish Civil War, the Japanese in World War II and the North Koreans in the Korean War.
That Mark Alonso even got to America and became a U.S. citizen is itself a remarkable journey.
It began when he was 11 years old and the German Luftwaffe (air force) bombed the Basque town of Guernica in April 1937 in support of General Franco in the Spanish Civil War.
The town was not a military stronghold, said Alonso, its population was merely bombed as a show of force.
More than 7,000 civilians were killed in the raid. Alonso was one of the survivors.
Some 5,000 women and children were evacuated by British charity groups to refugee camps in England before Franco’s forces took the town.
When the civil war ended in 1938, some of the children were allowed to return to Guernica. Mark’s older brother went back and was to send for Mark and his other brother, but Mark never heard anything.
By the time the war in Europe broke out in September 1939, Mark had tired of camp life.
He went to London, survived by begging for food and performing odd jobs, all without official papers.
Alonso learned he couldn’t join the British army, but could work on a fishing trawler and, after a year, he could get papers to join the British merchant marine.
But a curious thing started to happen in late 1942.
“I started seeing all these American soldiers, the ‘Yanks,’ in these crisp uniforms in London. The other soldiers looked like they were beaten but the Yanks were real confident. I thought, ‘This is the army for me.’”
He started hanging around American soldiers and learned how to speak American English. The soldiers supplied Alonso with food and clothes and, more importantly, stories about America.
“Boy, I really learned a lot from those guys. I was fascinated by this country that had so much freedom. I really wanted to join their army, so my whole plan was to get on a ship to America.”
Eventually, he joined the British merchant marine and served on a number of convoys through war zones.
Luckily for Mark, the German subs always targeted the tankers in the convoys.
“I always said if I was assigned to a tanker, I wouldn’t do it,” laughed Mark.
Finally, in 1944, he became a deck hand on a cargo ship headed for America.
“In Philadelphia, the captain wouldn’t give us our papers, but I jumped ship anyway. I had $5 in my pocket and didn’t know anybody, but I’d met all these guys from Brooklyn so I hitchhiked there.”
Then once he got to the Big Apple, his dream was almost destroyed when the army turned him down when he tried to volunteer. “No birth certificate,” they told him.
“But the guy said if I went across the street to the draft board, they would take me because they took anybody. I said ‘Is it the same army?’ and he said ‘yes,’ so I went.”
The draft board office was full of guys trying to get out of the army for medical reasons.
“I think I was the only guy in there who actually wanted to get in the army. They were going to have me wait a few months, but when I told the guy I didn’t have any place to go, they took me that day.”
By nightfall, he was at Fort Dix, N.J. as a private in the U.S. Army.
At the age of 18, Mark had realized his dream of becoming an American soldier.
The war in Europe was winding down and Alonso was sent to the Pacific to train for the invasion of Japan, but the Japanese surrendered shortly thereafter in September 1945. He was sent to Kyushu, Japan, with the occupation army, but saw no action.
Mark was discharged from the Army in 1946, but remained in the reserves. When the Korean War broke out, he was called to active duty and sent to Korea where he fought with 24th Infantry Division.
“We saw plenty of action then,” said Mark. “I can’t tell you how many of my buddies didn’t make it.”
He came back from Korea to New York in 1953, but the city didn’t seem the same. He decided then to “go home” to Guernica and see all the children he had been with in the refugee camps in Britain.
By now, Mark was an American citizen, an event he calls “one of the proudest moments of my life.
“Only if you have been denied your freedom can you appreciate what freedom and this country means,” he said. “Yet, we have so many people who abuse this freedom and take it for granted.”
As an American citizen, Mark was able to return to his native Guernica without fear of political persecution.
When he arrived “home,” he was reunited with many of the children, now adults, who had been evacuated with him to England.
He ran into a pretty young lady named “Miren,” whom he remembered as a little girl at the camp.
“We were both grown and single, and things just started to click,” he said.
Within a week, Mark asked her, “When can we go to the church” to get married. That was as good a proposal as Miren would get, she said, but that was enough.
A few weeks later, Mark and Miren returned to the United States.
They eventually settled in Michigan where Mark operated a paving business. They have six children, all of whom still live in Grand Rapids.
“So we’re the ones who flew the coop to Florida,” said Mark with a laugh.
The couple have lived in Anna Maria for the past 15 years.
While they enjoy the good life on Anna Maria Island, Mark said he sometimes feels a little guilty about all the kids from Guernica who didn’t make it back, all the seamen who died at sea, and all the buddies from the 24th Division who didn’t come home.
“I’m no hero. Things just worked out for me the way I planned. It’s been an amazing story. Sometimes, I just pinch myself because I live in the greatest country in the world.”
“The Greatest Generation” column is for Island, Longboat Key, Perico Island and Cortez veterans, man or woman, who served in the armed forces of any allied country during World War II. We’d like to hear from you. Please call Rick Catlin at 941-778-7978.