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Battle of Bataan and aftermath leave indelible mark on N.M. and veterans

April 9, 2017 GMT

ALAMOGORDO — Valdemar DeHerrera raises his fists, clenching them as tight and fiercely as his 97-year-old body can manage. It is a fighter’s pose, with hands that are thin and frail and clothed in soft, knitted gray gloves, because even on this warm spring day, they get cold.

“Come on, you want to fight?” he says, not to the reporter sitting with him at his dining room table, but to a swarm of Japanese troops, 75 years ago, on a desperate patch of the Philippines where he and thousands of soldiers were about to die or get flung into years of agony in prison camps. He recalls the words he said that day, when all hope was lost, when the American and Filipino troops were out of bullets, medicine and food. He had dropped his rifle and raised his fists.

“Fight like a man?”

It was the darkest moment of his life, and the nightmares, the ones he won’t talk about, even all these years later, even with his closest family members, still stalk him.

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‘There was three years of awful’

The Battle of Bataan is largely remembered today for the Bataan Death March that American and Filipino soldiers endured following their surrender on April 9, 1942. But the march tends to overshadow the story of the entire Bataan campaign, said Christopher Schurtz, an adjunct professor of military history at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces. His own grandfather survived the nearly 70-mile march but later perished in a Japanese prison camp.

“The Bataan Death March lasted just a couple of weeks,” Schurtz said. “It’s the three years as prisoners of war that unites everyone in the experience. There’s too much fixation on the march itself. The march was awful, but there was three years of awful.”

DeHerrera was not in the march but spent three years in a Japanese prison camp following the battle. He was just one of those many thousands who experienced the “awful.”

He is one of roughly a dozen known living survivors of the battle, the first major campaign in the Asian theater following the attack on Pearl Harbor.

DeHerrera, who splits his time now between homes in Alamogordo and Taos, plans to be in Santa Fe at 10 a.m. Sunday, April 9, at the Bataan Memorial Building on Don Gaspar Avenue, where the New Mexico National Guard will present a 75th anniversary commemoration of the fall of Bataan.

As this major milestone comes, time is thinning out the ranks of the survivors. Many still living are too frail or infirm to travel to Santa Fe for the ceremony.

DeHerrera — a vibrant, ever-smiling man with a dark sense of humor — said he hears news every year of some of his comrades passing on. Former Taos Pueblo governor and Bataan Death March survivor Tony Reyna died in December at the age of 100.

“He used to call me Curly because of my curly hair,” said DeHerrera, running his fingers over his scalp.

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New Mexico’s contribution to the battle is uniquely painful: Of the roughly 1,800 New Mexicans who fought in the Philippines alongside Filipino defenders, just half of them came back. The rest died in battle, on the infamous march or in Japanese prison camps.

Even today, like many people of his generation, DeHerrera is reluctant to share stories of the pain he endured. And he makes only passing mention of the dreams that still wake him sometimes, the ones of Japanese soldiers attacking.

He said his faith in God gave him hope throughout the ordeal.

“Lots of luck, I can tell you that,” he said of his survival. And “prayer, every day.”

In war, desperate moments

DeHerrera was born and raised in Costilla, N.M., a speck on the map north of Questa. He was working as a sheepherder when the U.S. Army drafted him in the spring of 1941. Before that, his only experience fighting was when he got in the ring with a guy training to be a boxer as part of an initiation rite at a Civilian Conservation Corps camp in Northern New Mexico. DeHerrera was just 17.

The onlookers expected DeHerrera to fall quickly. But he surprised them with a lucky punch, knocking his opponent down.

“I want to train you,” the loser’s trainer told DeHerrera.

“No, no, I don’t want to fight,” DeHerrera told the man.

Six years later, he was training with the U.S. Army at Fort Bliss in Texas. He got one day of target practice at the rifle range. A former hunter, he was a good shot. Soon after, he was assigned to the 515th Coastal Artillery regiment of the New Mexico National Guard.

The next thing he knew, he was on a transport ship to the Philippines. He remembers a sudden typhoon rocking the ship so hard that the mess hall tables skidded up and down the room during chow time. The cooks gave up on trying to serve hot food that would invariably land in the soldiers’ laps.

He can recall the heat and humidity pressing down on him as he landed in the Philippines, far different from the cool aridness of Northern New Mexico. He wore shorts and saw native tribal people in the surrounding jungles. All was peaceful at first.

Then, early on Dec. 8, 1941 — before news of the Pearl Harbor attack had even reached the soldiers — the men were lining up for breakfast outside when one of DeHerrera’s comrades pointed at the sky and said, “Look, here come some [U.S.] Navy planes.”

DeHerrera took one look at them and thought differently. It was the enemy.

“Next thing you know, the bombs were coming down,” he said.

The American soldiers scrambled for their rifles, many of them relics of World War I, but found them of little use. DeHerrera watched as an American plane struck by a Japanese fighter crashed into the muddy slime about 100 feet away from him.

“The pilot and the plane disappeared into the swamp,” he said. “Maybe they’re still there.”

The battle formally began in January. For DeHerrera, the next three months were a jumble of fighting, running, destroying American equipment to keep it out of the hands of the Japanese, scavenging for food and watching his buddies die.

Thinking back now, DeHerrera is philosophical about their deaths. “We were at war,” he said. “We didn’t know if we were going to live or die. In war, some are going to die.”

The fighting culminated April 9, 1942, when Maj. General Edward King Jr., who commanded the Bataan forces, disobeyed Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s orders and surrendered the 75,000-some American and Filipino defenders.

“He had no authority to do that,” DeHerrera said with bitterness.

It was during the lead-up to that surrender that DeHerrera calls his most desperate moments, when he held up his fists in a boxer’s pose, sure he was going to die. But he didn’t die. In fact, he escaped, one of thousands of soldiers who fled to the nearby island of Corregidor, where the Americans and Filipinos made their last stand.

In the battle that followed, he watched a friend ripped apart by a grenade, and at one point took up a machine gun against advancing Japanese soldiers.

As he sat at his table recalling the memories, he used his arms and hands to re-create the rat-a-tat-tat of the weapon.

“They scattered like chickens,” he said.

Captivity, then a turn in the tide

Corregidor fell to the Japanese about a month later, and DeHerrera was transported to a prison camp in Manchuria. Some Japanese guards used prisoners for bayonet practice. Others, he said, treated the captives with humanity.

“You know Tom Mix?” one asked him, referring to the silent-era cowboy star, who made a number of films in New Mexico. “Yeah, I know Tom Mix,” DeHerrera said.

DeHerrera told the soldier he grew up in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The guard said he knew exactly where that was because the Japanese were mapping out America for an invasion.

Other guards were not so compassionate. One stood behind DeHerrera while the prisoner worked on a fabric assembly line in a Manchurian factory. He randomly struck DeHerrera, and DeHerrera hit him back.

Retaliation was swift. The camp commander pulled DeHerrera’s jacket over his head so he couldn’t see, and then set three guards on him. DeHerrera felt the blows of six fists hitting him from every side.

Still, the commander didn’t order him killed. Instead, he thought DeHerrera must have been crazy to attack a guard. DeHerrera said he began to play the fool, which fascinated the guards and dissuaded them from causing further harm.

In real life, he realized he was mimicking behavior around him. “A lot of the guys lost their minds,” he said.

Death — in the form of disease, starvation and the Japanese captors — took the lives of many of those in the camp.

Some prisoners of Manchurian-based prison camps were forcefully used in biological warfare experiments, but DeHerrera was spared this experience.

All told, an estimated 20,000 Filipinos and 800 to 1,200 Americans were killed in the battle for Bataan. Another 8,000 American soldiers died in captivity following the Japanese victory.

DeHerrera lost track of time, until one day a Japanese-American interpreter entered the camp to tell both the Japanese guards and their captives that the war was over. The Japanese didn’t believe it. But they soon began abandoning the camp, and in some cases, their rifles. Once the prisoners got their hands on some of the weapons, DeHerrera said, the tides turned a bit.

“The next morning there were two Japanese guards hanging from the trees,” he said.

Returning to America was a blur. His family — who were told he was missing in action sometime in 1942 — welcomed the 80-pound soldier back. The medical staff of the Bruns Army Hospital in Santa Fe, located at the site of the Santa Fe University of Art and Design, tried to help him by fattening him up. He’s been a lean, 145-pounder ever since that time.

He drifted, traveled, returned to sheep herding. In 1949, he married Consuelo “Connie” Devargas. They built and ran a farm together. He later worked for the highway department, among other jobs, in both Questa and Taos. They have five daughters, one son, 15 grandchildren, 23 great-grandchildren and two great-great-grandchildren.

Daughter Catherine DeHerrera-Taylor said her father bore his pain silently and never mentioned the war. “He didn’t fall apart,” she said.

But his wife said at times he was like a load of firewood that a wartime memory could trigger like a match.

Two of his granddaughters prompted DeHerrera to first start talking about his war experiences in the 1980s, when they decided to write about him for a school essay on “somebody famous in their family.” Then he started opening up more — therapy in itself, his wife and daughter said.

For years, nobody cared about the Bataan veterans, DeHerrera and his wife said. Now, they celebrate them like heroes even though many consider the campaign itself a defeat.

Schurtz said some might claim Bataan a victory in delaying Japanese expansion plans by months. “That is arguable. Others have said that the Japanese figured that into their attack plans,” he said.

The lesson of Bataan, Schurtz said, is “one of survival, of this brotherhood, New Mexico guys who stuck together.”

DeHerrera agrees. But America won the war all the same, he said. He recalled a Japanese soldier haughtily explaining to him why Japan would come out the victor.

“You won’t win the war because you are not one people,” the soldier said. “You are not unified. We are one people.”

DeHerrera smiles when he recalls that story.

“He was wrong,” he said.

Contact Robert Nott at rnott@sfnewmexican.com or 505-986-3021.