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Commemoration set in Santa Fe for Bataan Death March

April 8, 2019 GMT

It was a New Mexico spring day when Mrs. Howard Meyer of Albuquerque addressed a group of about 80 women from the Mother’s Service Club — just one day after U.S. military forces on the peninsula of Bataan in the Philippines surrendered to the Japanese.

“We’re good soldiers,” she told the assembly. “And we’re taking it with our chins up.”

Newspaper accounts of the meeting on April 10, 1942, don’t say how the women in the room reacted. It’s likely, with some 1,800 New Mexico servicemen taking part in the battle of Bataan, that many harbored grave concerns about the fate of their husbands, sons, relatives or friends.

Were they dead? Missing in action? Prisoners of war? And what could those back home in New Mexico do except plant victory gardens, rally for the purchase of war bonds and hold out hope?

And wait — one, two, three or more years — for news of their loved ones.

“It was a time of anguish, it was a time of fear, it was a time of uncertainty,” Santa Fe Community College history professor Stephen Martinez said of the emotions brewing on the New Mexico homefront following the fall of Bataan. “They never thought an American army could be captured like this. How did this happen and what happened to their boys?”

At 11 a.m. Tuesday, the state will once again honor the “Battling Bastards of Bataan,” as they were called, for their contribution and sacrifice during the early days of World War II, with a public commemoration at the Bataan Memorial Building on Galisteo Street.

The ranks of the survivors of that battle and its deadly aftermath, the Bataan Death March, are thinning each year. Two years ago, on the 75th anniversary of the fall of Bataan, five survivors showed up. Last year, there was just one.

Through the years, their spouses, children and/or grandchildren have accompanied them, standing silently in their shadows while state leaders and military authorities lauded the sacrifice these aged warriors made 77 years ago, when, as one Santa Fe New Mexican headline read: “It Looked As If the War Were New Mexico vs. Japan.”

That’s because New Mexico’s sacrifice in the four-month defense of the Philippines, then a U.S. territory, was uniquely tragic — of the 1,800 or so New Mexicans who fought alongside Filipino defenders, just half came back.

The rest died in battle, on the infamous 65-mile march, or in Japanese prison camps. And it happened largely before U.S. troops were involved in heavy fighting in Europe or in other parts of the Pacific.

Military historians say their spirited “hold this ground” approach bought America and its allies much-needed time to organize forces and derail a Japanese plan to invade Australia, among other places.

New Mexicans could read daily reports of the battle in local newspapers. A Feb. 9, 1942 story, for example, said Americans were repulsing Japanese attacks on a daily basis. A story the next day said Americans shot down seven Japanese planes but were facing “increasingly heavy odds on the ground.”

Then came news of the surrender. “Bataan Collapses!” one headline blared, followed by “36,000 Men Feared Lost in the Fall of Bataan.” Then there was this: “Bataan Falls to Overwhelming Japanese Horde.”

The end of the Bataan campaign left those back home lost in doubt. All they could do was reach out to others in the same situation in person, by phone or by letter.

“News travels fast and bad news is no exception,” said historian David Holtby, who recently published a book on World War I and New Mexico, and who is working on one about the state’s connection to World War II and other wars.

“In fact, oral accounts may have penetrated more thoroughly the vast distances of the state because personal connections existed in almost every community, from village to city, in the state.”

Albuquerque resident Margaret Garcia, daughter of the late Evans Garcia, a Bataan Death March survivor, said families did not sit idly by.

“They set up memorial gatherings, laid wreaths and prayed all the time,” she said. “They organized ‘phone trees,’ where, if somebody heard something about someone else’s son, they would call the mothers of that family with information. They founded the Bataan Relief Organization in Albuquerque and sustained it through the end of the war.

“Families would listen to radio reports and share news with other families about loved ones by phone or by writing letters,” Garcia said.

Sometimes the letters were full of nothing but hope, as evidenced by a collection of missives Dean Daniel B. Jett of the New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts (now New Mexico State University) wrote to hundreds of his former students who were serving in the military during the war.

These letters, collected in the book The Whole Damned World: New Mexico Aggies at War 1941-1945, include a number about the fate of Sgt. Thomas Marion Palmer, a New Mexican listed as “missing in action” following his role in the Battle of Bataan.

“We can only hope that Marion will come back to us at the end of the war,” Jett wrote relative John Pershing Palmer, in August 1942. “It certainly is hard on all of the parents and brothers and sisters not to know whether they are alive or dead … we have had no definite word on any of the boys who were taken prisoner.”

Marion was captured and forced to take part in the Death March, and he died just a few days after being liberated from a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp in Manila in February 1945, according to the book.

The uncertainty over the prisoners’ fate was not unique to the Palmer family. While state newspapers, including the Santa Fe New Mexican, were filled with daily stories of the Battle of Bataan and its immediate aftermath, once the defenders surrendered on April 9, news became more scarce.

In the rare cases when a New Mexican family knew their loved one was interred in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp, there was little they could do, other than to send postcards with no more than 25 words written out in block letters, former New Mexico State Historian Rick Hendricks said.

“And often those letters never arrived,” he said. “Families would be writing lots and lots of letters, and the [captive] soldiers would not be getting them.”

From April 1942 into early to mid-1943, neither the Japanese military nor American government gave out much information about the Bataan defenders. Some family members could take an ounce of relief, perhaps, in reading in their local papers in December 1942 that 78 New Mexicans, including Santa Feans Frank E. Wilson and Paul A. Reessler, were alive but being held by the Japanese.

A little over a year later, they would finally learn, according to Associated Press articles published by local newspapers, that the Japanese were being accused of inhumane treatment of Bataan survivors.

The impact of these stories was devastating. Margaret Garcia said her father, upon returning home at the end of the war, expressed shock at seeing his mother, Juanita, for the first time in years.

“When he left she was a good-sized woman, full-bodied, with jet black hair,” Margaret Garcia said. “And when he came back and saw her for the first time she was skin and bones, with hair as white as snow. The stress and worry had devastated her physically, emotionally and mentally.”

The late Agapito “Gap” Silva, another Death March survivor, told another heartbreaking story of returning to New Mexico to find that his father, waiting to greet him at the train station in Lamy, had gone blind during the war.

“His family said that his father had cried so much that he lost his sight,” Margaret Garcia said.

Such things may not have changed much in the ensuing years, she said. Her son has served three tours in the Middle East and she, like many mothers and fathers, sat “waiting for that phone call, not knowing if they are OK or wounded or alive.

“But for the Bataan families, I’m sure it was much worse because they often waited for years not knowing.”

Commemorating the Bataan story ties people to the experiences of military personnel currently serving in conflicts in far-away lands, Hendricks said.

“They are focusing on the sacrifice that their fellow servicemen made in 1942, and they are remembering,” he said. “And many people in the armed forces, and their families, can use it as an opportunity to make a connection to the sacrifices being made today.”