Raíces - Tradiciones 2017

The 75th anniversary of the Bataan Death March

Battery H

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While much has been written about the World War II campaign of Bataan and the defense of the Philippines, let it not ever be forgotten that many Taoseños helped hold the line. 

The sacrifices made by the 200th Coast Artillery — among other units — in the long run helped delay and ultimately prevent a Japanese invasion of Australia. Some have said this unit of the New Mexico National Guard was assigned to the Philippines because the Taos soldiers, whether Hispano, Anglo or Native American, for the most part were fluent in Spanish and English — skills necessary for cooperation and coordination in the defense of a Spanish-speaking country in the Orient.

The 200th Coast Artillery evolved from the old 111th Cavalry, New Mexico National Guard, of which the Taos unit was Troop K. Early in 1939, with modernization of American military forces, the Adjutant General’s Office received direction from the War Department to convert the cavalry unit to Coast Artillery. This conversion began in 1940, according to John Pershing Jolly, former adjutant general of New Mexico, in his book, “History of the National Guard of New Mexico 1606-1963.” Taos and its citizen soldiers became Battery H. These men traded horses for anti-aircraft cannons. Maj. Jack Boyer, one of the commanders of the Taos unit, said in a Taos News special section dedicated to Taoseño World War II veterans published on March 25, 2005, that the regiment consisted of 60 men and four officers, all from the Taos area.

“We trained hard at Fort Bliss, without full compliment of weapons and equipment and with little or no firing of those weapons we had,” Boyer wrote. “Still, by August 1941, the 200th had been officially named as the best AA regiment, regular Army or otherwise, available for use in an area of critical importance. As the Philippines had become such an area, the 200th was then ordered there.”

With war looming on the horizon, the 200th readied for its overseas assignment, and after completing training at Fort Bliss, Texas, arrived at Fort Stotsenberg, 75 miles north of Manila, Philippines.

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, the 200th mobilized, awaiting impending hostile air attacks. Although not fully equipped with the correct powder-train fuses, the soldiers prepared to defend Manila, Clark Air Field and help train Filipino forces. Further, the Japanese were also attacking the Philippines simultaneously, according to Jolly. By the next day, during a high-altitude attack by Japanese bombers, the 200th shot down five aircraft. The American regiment lost two guardsmen to the first bomb dropped, making a direct hit on their truck. It was only the beginning — the American and Filipino forces were under constant air attack over the next two weeks, and the Japanese invasion troops began landing on Luzon, the main island. Battling those constant attacks, the 200th fought delaying actions without any sign of reinforcements, essentially making an orderly retreat to San Fernando while being everywhere at the same time. The 200th and its provisional unit of Filipinos, trained and led by New Mexicans, successfully covered the evacuation of forces, equipment and supplies into Bataan. American forces were now under the command of Gens. Jonathan Wainwright and Edward P. King Jr., Col. Charles Sage and Lt. Col. Harry M. Peck.

By April 3, 1942, the Japanese, having received enough reinforcements, started the final drive through the Bataan peninsula. All told, the defenders had resisted the enemy for three months. Surrounded, outnumbered and running low on food and medicine, suffering from malaria, with many casualties, King reluctantly and formally surrendered about 75,000 Filipino and American soldiers to Japanese Gen. Masaharu Homma on April 9, 1942.

In intense heat, the prisoners were forced to walk the infamous 65-mile “Death March” from Mariveles, on the southern end of the Bataan Peninsula, to San Fernando. From there, the groups of about 100 men were transported by train toprison camps. En route, they were beaten randomly and denied food and water. Many were tortured to death. Those who survived the approximately five-day march endured 40 months of incarceration in various Japanese prisoner of war camps, where cruel treatment, disease and malnutrition continued to take its toll.

The Americans were forced to march on the right side of the roads, while the Filipino prisoners were made to walk on the left side so the Japanese soldiers escorting them could tell the difference. Some Filipinos resembled Americans, just as some New Mexicans resembled Filipinos, and this confusion gave some of the guards an excuse to further mistreat the men.

Upon arriving at San Fernando, some survivors interned there. Others were forced into 1918 model railroad boxcars with more than 100 men to a car, continuing on to various camps, such as the pre-war training area turned prison camp called Camp O’Donnell, which was another 10 kilometers away (just more than 6 miles).

It is believed that at least 1,500 American prisoners died, and at least 25,000 Filipinos fell victim to their captors’ mistreatment.

Ranking officer Boyer survived the war. During a 1987 speech at the dedication of the old Taos Armory as a Bataan Memorial Building, Boyer said, “The Philippine campaign, which culminated with the fall of Bataan on 9 April, and Corregidor on 6 May, 1942, should never have happened. The whole campaign is a classic example of unpreparedness, lack of communication, lack of knowledge of the capabilities and limitations of equipment, lack of training and of equipment and the extreme jealousy and antipathy of high-ranking officers – and the decision of President Roosevelt and his staff in Washington toward the defense of the Philippine islands.”

The late Tony Reyna (Taos Pueblo) of the 200th Coast Artillery and fellow survivors, however, never gave up, even though the danger never ceased. After Russian troops set them free in August 1945, an airplane crashed into their compound. Then, the hospital ship transporting them to Okinawa hit a mine. In Japan, the wheel of their airplane fell off. It seemed as if the odds were against their ever coming home to Taos again.

Reyna explained that only six of 11 guardsmen from Taos Pueblo survived. Fernando Concha, Big Jim Lujan, Jerry and Lupe Lucero and Joe I. Lujan perished.

Reyna weighed only 100 pounds when he returned. After recovering in a Santa Fe hospital, he returned to his life at Taos Pueblo, where he served as Taos Pueblo governor twice and continued to manage his own art shop on the Pueblo. He served on many boards and was instrumental in bringing a health clinic to the Pueblo – and in getting it designated an official United Nations World Heritage site.

War was an atrocity like no other. “Those who survived,” said Reyna, “were determined to survive. One man next to me just plain gave up. He quit seeing the future.” Reyna was forced to bury Concha, his Taos Pueblo comrade. Survivor Roberto Medina, a Taos native son, did as many New Mexican patriots have always done. Medina volunteered for military service. In a 2004 Taos News special section article, Scott Gerdes wrote that some family members believe he embellished the truth about his age and that instead of 21, he was actually 17 when he enlisted in the New Mexico National Guard and then assigned to Battery H.

“All of these veterans are modest and for the most part reluctant to talk much about their war experiences,” Medina told The Taos News. “It would be like bragging [to say much about having survived the war].”

In retrospect after the conflict, Col. Peck said, “New Mexicans must never forget the many hundreds of men of the 200th who did not survive on Luzon, Bataan and in various Japanese prisoner of war camps and those who lost their lives at sea.” (Several of the prisoners drowned when a ship transporting them to Japan was torpedoed by an American submarine, whose captain and crew were unaware the prisoners were on board.)

Continued Peck, “Somewhat less than 20 of these casualties occurred as a result of battle action, a remarkable recordfor units engaged in combat with the invaders several times every day for four continuous months. Those who survived this war and who had the good fortune to know the 200th and the 515th — ‘The Brigade’— will always remember their patience under adverse conditions, their uncomplaining care of each other and the inevitable guitars, which played a requiem to those who died.”

The New Mexico Brigade brought home three Distinguished Unit Citations and the Philippine Presidential Citation. These awards are also personally held by each individual who was a member of the units during the periods covered by the citations. According to Jolly, it is believed that no unit participating in World War II was awarded more than three Distinguished Unit Citations.

Taoseños continue to serve in our nation’s military forces, a tradition that began during the American Civil War. However, no unit suffered more personal loss or sacrificed more souls than those who gave their all at Bataan. Let us never forget their contribution in order to help secure the blessings of liberty we continue to enjoy. 

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