Wednesday, August 7, 2013

New Mexico: Bataan Death March

Some of the men who went to the Phillippines. Credit: Wilma Ticer Bull and NMSU

When I first arrived in New Mexico, Alamogordo specifically, I learned about the Bataan Memorial Death March. I wasn't clear on why - kind of in the middle of nowhere - there was this annual commemorative hike. I did some desultory research, but nothing New Mexico-specific jumped out at me, and I moved on to other things. It remained puzzling. 

But recently I read Oliver La Farge's essay in The Spell of New Mexico, and this caught me:  
... a whole regiment of New Mexico men, out of the Spanish-speaking hill villages, from the country of the drawling cowhands, from the deserts and mountains of the Indians, a whole regiment of them, .... lost on Bataan. 

Every spring participants in the Bataan Memorial Death March hike up to 26.2 miles through the White Sands Missile Range. Alas, the official memorial march page devotes only one sentence to the New Mexicans in Bataan:  Among those seized were members of the 200th Coast Artillery, New Mexico National Guard.

Of the 1,816 men in the 200th & 515th Coast Artillery (New Mexican units), 829 died in battle, while prisoners, or immediately after liberation.  There were 987 survivors.

From New Mexico State University:
In the 1930s, the men of the New Mexico National Guard were brothers, cousins, friends, and compadres. Some were part of a tradition -- their fathers, uncles, and grandfathers had also been members of the Guard.....

The New Mexico National Guard likes to remind other guard troops that they are the oldest militia in the United States. They trace their roots to the early 1600s, when a Spanish militia fought hostile Indians in the northern part of the state.....

The men of the 111th were ranch hands, miners, farmers, postal workers, students, professors, lawyers, and doctors. They knew each other from football teams, scout troops, or neighborhoods. They were friends or cousins, or members of the same tribe. ....

They represented New Mexico -- Anglos, Mexican Americans, Native Americans, and anyone else who cared to join. They were from nearly every tribe and every county in the state.

I would point you to a PBS (!) documentary on the 70th anniversary of the Bataan Death March, with an emphasis on the New Mexican units, except that this documentary seems primarily to be a vehicle for political self-aggrandizement by Senator Tom Udall and others. Ick.

Instead, here's a story from one survivor - Lorenzo Banegas.

Over 1800 New Mexican soldiers went to the Phillippines, and only half returned.

I don't know if this is true or not, but I read where New Mexico at the time of the war, only had about half a million residents, and that each was related to or knew at least one soldier caught up in the Bataan death march. 

A few years ago, I read Tears in the Darkness: The Story of the Bataan Death March and its Aftermath. Diligently researched, well told, and unsparing in its descriptions of the physical, mental, and emotional tortures before, during, and after the death march.

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