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When so many New Mexicans suffered Hell on Earth

Remembering the Bataan Death March

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If you’ve moved to Las Cruces in the past 20 years, you may be curious why White Sands Missile Range has an annual event commemorating the Bataan Death March, or why U.S. Hwy. 70 is dubbed the Bataan Memorial Highway.

Most of us know “December 7, 1941 – a date which will live in infamy,” as President Franklin Roosevelt described the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, which propelled the United States into World War II.

Most of us are not familiar, however, with Dec. 8, 1941, when the Japanese bombed Clark Field in the Philippine Islands just a few hours after Pearl Harbor.

That set the stage for atrocious events 80 years ago, half a world away in the Philippines during World War II. When the battle for the Philippine peninsula of Bataan ended in April 1942, the Japanese had about 72,000 prisoners of war. Around 60,000 of those were Filipino soldiers. Of the approximately 12,000 Americans, more than 1,800 – 15 percent or more – were New Mexicans. New Mexico had the highest per-capita representation of any state. The soldiers, many from southern New Mexico, hailed from the 200th and the 515th Coast Artillery of the National Guard.

Most of the Americans had arrived in the Philippines in August 1941 to help shore up the Filipino defense of Manila Bay, a strategic position in the Pacific. Even before the surprise attack in December, conditions were difficult. Food rations were inconsistent, and soldiers were stuck with old, World War I-era equipment. After Pearl Harbor, they lost the possibility of additional troops, equipment and battleship support from Hawaii, all decimated.

American and Filipino forces fought the Japanese and their superior firepower and fresher troops, for four months. On April 9, 1942, the depleted and weakened Filipino and U.S. forces surrendered to the Japanese, becoming prisoners of war.

For seven days, they marched at Japanese gunpoint 65 miles north to a railroad station. Anyone who fell out of the line was beaten, tortured or killed. The prisoners did their best to save the fallen, carrying or dragging victims in the oppressive 100-degree heat. They were given little to no food and fresh water. Dysentery and other diseases claimed many.

Once at the railroad station, surviving prisoners were crammed into boxcars and taken another 45 miles. Those who survived that were forced to march another 10 miles to the prison camp, where beatings and torture resumed. It is estimated more than 25,000 died on the march before reaching the camp.

Of the 1,816 New Mexicans originally deployed to the Philippines, 829 never returned home. They died either during the battle, on the march or in prison, or died after the 1945 liberation of the Philippines, succumbing to injuries or disease sustained during the march or imprisonment.

As difficult as it sounds, it was way more gruesome and terrifying than I’m describing here.

Twenty years ago this month, the Bataan Memorial Monument was dedicated at Veterans Memorial Park in Las Cruces. It culminated several years’ work from many concerned citizens who believed these veterans needed recognition.

J. Joe Martinez, who currently has a Farmers Insurance Agency in Las Cruces, has long been active in community affairs in Las Cruces and New Mexico. Martinez’s uncles, Juan and Jose “Pepe” Baldonado, who grew up in Tularosa, were both Bataan survivors.

Martinez had known longtime U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici since they both had boys playing Little League in Albuquerque, where Domenici was then a city councilor. In December 1997, they had a conversation in Las Cruces about the need for a Bataan Memorial tribute.

With Domenici’s blessing and the hope of federal funding, Martinez, with help from his wife, Arlene, got the ball rolling. They located a young designer named Rob Sharp (now with Wilson Binkley Advertising & Marketing). Sharp drew a sketch of three Bataan soldiers. From that sketch grew the concept of a sculpture by Las Cruces artist Kelley Hestir.

To represent the thousands of others on the march, Arlene Martinez had the idea of a trail with hundreds of footprints. That idea also came to fruition, with several pairs of the footprints cast from the feet of actual Bataan survivors.

With participation and support from multiple entities – including federal, state, county and city officials – as well as White Sands Missile Range and Holloman Air Force Base, the unveiling was a success, and today we celebrate 20 years of this wonderful addition to our Veterans Park, and this solemn reminder of those men who so long ago sacrificed so much.