By Joseph Vigil
Chief of Public Affairs, New Mexico National Guard
SANTA FE, N.M. - The New Mexico National Guard honored the Soldiers of the 200th and 515th Coast Artillery Regiments April 9, 2016, in a ceremony commemorating the 74th anniversary of the surrender of Bataan in the Pacific theater during World War II - a ceremony started by First Sgt. Manuel Armijo as a yearly remembrance to honor his fellow former POWs after he returned home at the end of the war in 1946.
While the ranks of these New Mexico World War II heroes have thinned, their sacrifices, along with their honorable and courageous service, leaves an indelible mark on American history that should never be forgotten. They endured tremendous suffering so that future generations would remain free.
While greatly being outnumbered and poorly supplied, over 1,800 New Mexicans who became know as the “Battling Bastards of Bataan” fought valiantly for four months and held back the Japanese army who had orders to take the Philippines in four weeks - a timetable essential for the Japanese to take the Pacific before the United States could build back its forces, regenerate the fleet, secure the bases and reinforce Australia. These Bataan heroes put up a gallant defense and made those goals difficult for the enemy.
On April 9, 1942, our Bataan heroes were forced by the U.S. to surrender to the Japanese army over the objections of the Soldiers themselves who preferred to fight to the end rather than quit. They went on to endure the suffering of a 65-mile forced march to prison camps which became known as the Bataan Death March. They relied not only on physical strength,, but mental and spiritual strength to survive three and a half years of captivity. About 900 New Mexicans survived the war and returned home.
State Chaplain Lt. Col. Gary Ortiz described the events of that day in the opening prayer as “a journey too painful to remember, but too tragic to not.”
Attending the ceremony were Ruben Rodriquez, 515th Coast Artillery, Bill Overmier, B Battery, 200th Coast Artillery, and Atilano David, 33rd Infantry, Filipino Scout. Family members of other Bataan veterans were also present to witness the ceremony’s traditions.
Cpl. Jack Aldridge, Staff Sgt. Ernest Montoya and First Sgt. Manuel Armijo were portrayed in the role playing presentation. When Armijo received the order to surrender from Brig. Gen. Edward King, he knew his Soldiers would want to keep fighting. He also wondered how his men would be treated by the Japanese.
Lt. Col. Pat Campos, master of ceremonies, gave the order to “strike the National colors and raise the white flag.” That was followed by the traditional reading of the stations which began in 1946 and were originally read by Bataan veterans themselves. Today, this responsibility has been passed to three modern-day veterans who are still serving their country, protecting our freedom and who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan.
The reading of American Boy, another long-standing tradition of the ceremony, represents the spirit of those who can’t be here and who fought and died for a cause - the freedom of a great country. It also reminds us that the torch is in our hands to keep her free forever.
Roll call was read for the passing of Bataan veterans since April 9, 2015, followed by a three rifle volley and the playing of Taps. Brig. Gen. Andrew Salas, the Adjutant General and Command Sgt. Maj. Greg Ivey, Senior Enlisted Leader, were joined by Overmier for the placing of a wreath at the base of the monument in recognition of our fallen heroes.
Secretary Jack Fox, N.M. Dept. of Veteran Services, addressed the Bataan veterans on behalf of Governor Susana Martinez. “To each of you, the men of Bataan, and to the families who suffered, supported and endured; she sends her personal love, respect and appreciation, and assures you that today the hearts and thoughts of all New Mexicans resides in you, your service and your sacrifice.”
Col. Ken Nava, NMNG chief of staff and ceremony guest speaker said, “Today is former POW Day and until July 1979, former POWs and MIAs were not recognized. Now they are recognized across the country and the focus is to make sure America remembers its responsibility to stand behind those who serve our nation and do everything possible to account for those who did not return.”
“In New Mexico, a state so profoundly impacted by the New Mexico National Guard’s role in World War II and specifically in the Philippines, it didn’t take us until 1979 to recognize our former POWs,” Nava said. “Today is Bataan Remembrance Day because New Mexico will never forget her sons. The eternal flame at this monument symbolizes that commitment. Those of us in the New Mexico National Guard commit to our Bataan veterans that as long as there is a New Mexico National Guard, this ceremony will continue and will always happen on April 9.”
Nava, who has had the honor and privilege to speak with many of these veterans said he has learned lots from these men, cited a quote from Dorothy Cave’s Beyond Courage book, “I can give you men much advise. Just always remember you are American Soldiers and act like Soldiers at all times. Someday our troops will be back. Use your heads for God’s sake and stick together no matter what happens.”
“We can see how these veterans, still to today, stick together,” Nava said. “As New Mexico Guardsmen, we always stick together no matter where we are.”
“Many speculate as to why you had so much fight in you,” Nava told the Veterans. “Some said it is because you came from the rugged southwest, some said it’s because you endured the tough times of the great depression, some said it was your faith, some said it was the thought of your family back home, and they are probably all correct. Your fighting spirit was very evident throughout your entire ordeal. You fought as coast artillery and were the first to fire on the Japanese. And then you fought as infantry until you were surrendered. You fought to survive the death march, hell ships and the prison camps. While in captivity, you fought at sabotaging the Japanese effort at every opportunity. This fighting spirit stayed with you your entire lives and we have learned from you to have that fighting spirit and carry it everywhere.”
Nava believes that it is no accident they survived because God had a plan for them and part of the plan was to help shape and mold current generations of Guard Soldiers and to remind us all how precious freedom really is.
Freedom isn’t free, Nava said, and these men, along with the families of MIAs and KIAs know that there is no group other than these that truly know what the saying means. It is incredibly important that we never forget the sacrifice of our former POWs, especially these men, and it is our solemn duty to serve our former POWs, their families and all of our veterans as well as they have served us.
Salas said the Bataan story is one to keep on telling. “It is a story of never giving up in the face of adversity, a story of drawing together when times are tough, and it’s a story of faith, opportunity, and the will to survive and prevail,” Salas said. “These veterans fought to the bitter end, drawing their bayonets after running out of ammunition, food and medicine while hearing the Japanese tanks roll towards them. They were ready for one final charge on those tanks in fulfillment of their oath to defend America. These three represent 1,800 and carry a story of sacrifice and a legacy of honor and service that inspires us to serve to this very day and it reminds us how precious freedom is.”
Rodriquez, a 99 year old Bataan veteran, recalls many men who were very sick and who didn’t have any medicine. He said Dysentery was the worst, deteriorating men’s bodies to almost nothing and once you got sick you didn’t last very long.
“Its very hard for me to describe,” he said. “We were corralled like animals and given a small handful of rice to eat every day. I was only 21, but I made up my mind that I was going to make it home. I kept my mind busy, always thinking of my family and my catholic faith.”
Overmier was captured on Corregidor and said the Japanese found out he was a carpenter so they sent him to Japan to work in the shipyards with 350 others. He recalls conditions not being much better there, and about 50 men died in the first month from all kinds of diseases they contracted in the Philippines. He worked in Yokohama for three years. “One night we heard aircraft, they put us outside to protect them from bombs as 400 American B29 bombers came over the camp. They turned a ninety and went over Tokyo and firebombed and wiped it out, killing thousands. The Japanese were using their people in their homes to make ammunition, guns and anything they needed for the army. We were there for several weeks after that, but they knew we were going to bomb the shipyards so they moved us north to an abandoned coal mine. It was a bad place to work. We had no clothes and we sweat like the dickens. Then I was transferred to a mountain town to clear rocks and trees to prepare the ground for planting food and vineyards. We were finally liberated after the bomb was dropped on the south end of the island. When I found out about the bombing, I said Hallelujah, the war is over!”
Eight Bataan survivors who reside in New Mexico remain with us today along with another 12 who live out of state.