The following article by José Armas appeared in the Albuquerque Tribune on August 18, 1998. Mr. Armas used the Spanish title ‘Don’ as opposed to ‘Mr.’ as a sign of respect, as is the custom with “Nuevo Mexicanos”.


Bataan vets now have to battle for home turf


Don Leo Padilla, who came to ask me for help, knows how to appreciate irony.

“I’ve gotten it from all sides,” says the veteran of the infamous Bataan Death March, the deadly World War II experience of 75,000 American and Filipino prisoners of war. Nearly half died, and survivors spent 3-1/2 years as Japanese captives.

“We were killed and brutalized by the Japs in the Philippines, and when we were sent to Manchuria in unmarked ships, we were torpedoed by US submarines.

“And today we still are having to fight.”

Padilla was referring to his Bataan Veterans Organization, which now finds itself in conflict with the city of Albuquerque over changes being made at the park that boasts their memorial on Lomas Boulevard.

Agapito E. Silva, commander of the local organization, says: “They ask us what we want, then they do what they want. They have created a mess. They have desecrated our memorial.”

In a letter to Mayor Jim Baca, Silva wrote: “We are writing ... to you to express our disappointment and objection of the malicious destruction of the Bataan memorial. The city of Albuquerque has disgraced the honor of the men who died for our country.”

Bataan Park is in the Summit Park Neighborhood Association area, and it’s president, Georgianna E. Peña-Kues, says it is supportive of the veterans' concerns. “They gave to us; now it’s our turn to give back to them — not what we choose but what they want.”

As part of apparently standard maintenance, the city has added a variety of unsightly utility boxes and valves to the park and removed trees — some because of disease, some by mistake.

Peña-Kues pointed out a bitter irony: The mulberry, cedar and spruce trees that were removed had been planted to honor Bataan veterans. In their place, species of Japanese origin were being planned — “Jap trees,” as Padilla retorted.

Mark Lessen, another association member, said, “Instead of improvements, what they've done with all the water valves, electrical boxes, control boxes and stations they've installed, the city has constructed a monument bigger than the Bataan memorial.”

At their monthly organization meeting, a frustrated Silva reported on the mayor’s response. “He called and was angry with me because I wrote the letter. He said I should have called him instead. Then he said he would call me back, but he hasn’t.”

This is when I was approached and asked to give the issue some attention. They are also asking for help from other groups. The mayor was out of town, but a source in the Mayor’s Office who asked not to be identified acknowledged there had been a communication breakdown with some groups, but the person believed they have been corrected.

The members of the Bataan Veterans Organization are now in their 70s and 80s. They are not waiting for time to pass. They’re on the move again. They want the “destruction” of their memorial stopped. They want to restore the respect and dignity to their memorial. They want to be included in decisions that are being made for a memorial that is supposed to be honoring them. They are working on a number of other constructive action items.

They want to have the entire park formally recognized as a memorial. They are also looking into making the memorial a historical site so it doesn’t get subjected to what Silva calls “overnight actions.”

They have enlisted the help of several University of New Mexico School of Architecture faculty to help them design an updated memorial to the nearly 2,000 New Mexicans who paid dearly for serving their country. They want the names of the New Mexican soldiers inscribed on a wall there.

Padilla turned 76 the day he came to see me. The fit and youthful 76-year-old was not trying to be ironic when he told me, “We want to look to the future.”

And who would dare deny them?