For the Boys

Memorial March 1998

Memorial March 2001

BCMFofNM, Inc.
© 1998-2010, Bernadett Charley Gallegos.

New Mexico “celebrates” its three dominant cultures, but there was a time when race, religion and economic status played no part in the lives of men so desperate they sought only the comfort of one of their own. I am speaking of the 200th and 515th Coast Artillery Anti-aircraft units of the New Mexico National Guard who were sent to the Philippines three months prior to the bombing of Pearl Harbor. They were young men, some just boys who had lied about their age. They were Anglos, Hispanos, Mexicans, Pueblo, Navajo and Apache. By war's end, 800 of the just over 1,800 men originally deployed would die while prisoners of the Japanese. One of those boys was my husband’s relative, Carlos Arturo Armijo of Las Vegas, New Mexico.

 

Camp Maximiliano Luna, 1940.

From the time of Oñate, through the Mexican government, and then territorial days, the militias of New Mexico fought in Indian campaigns and the Civil War. During the Spanish-American War they made up half of Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders. Following statehood, they served in Pershing’s Punitive Expedition and were sent into Mexico to apprehend the Mexican Francisco ‘Pancho’ Villa after Villa’s murderous raid on Columbus, New Mexico. They were federalized again shortly thereafter to fight in WWI. In the months prior to WWII the Guard’s anti-aircraft artillery units were formed. Just twenty-one years old, Carlos may never have realized he was carrying on a near 350 year old tradition when his unit, Battery D, 1st Battalion, 200th Coast Artillery (Anti-aircraft), was inducted into service in Gallup on 6 January 1941.

 

Japanese bombs striking at Fort Stotsenberg eight hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the 200th was the “first to fire” on the enemy. They were burdened with faulty weapons and WWI ammunition which could not reach altitudes, misfired, or did not fire at all. They were then divided in order to also protect Manila. Five hundred of the 200th formed the 515th Coast Artillery, the first battle-born unit of WWII, with Carlos among them.

 

Orders to evacuate to Bataan came on 24 December 1941. The 200th covered the retreat from the north, and the 515th, that from the south. On 5 January 1942, the last bridge to Bataan was blown, and the New Mexicans were the last men through. They took up positions to defend Cabcaben and Bataan airstrips, although they would serve in any capacity required. On January 9, the battle for Bataan began. MacArthur’s troops would in that month defeat two entire battalions of the Japanese army.

 

With Bataan cut off, providing sufficient food for the thousands of civilians and military personnel was at a crisis. In January, the men and nurses were put on half rations. In February, they were living on one meal of rationed rice, roots, tree leaves, and anything they could catch or steal. They were suffering from dysentery and malaria, and other diseases brought on by starvation, and lack of good water, with little or no medicines for treatment. When it became apparent that long promised reinforcements were not coming, that the war in Europe was first and foremost on their President’s mind, journalist Frank Hewlett wrote:

 

We’re the battling bastards of Bataan;

No mama, no papa, no Uncle Sam;

No aunts, no uncles, no cousins, no nieces,

No pills, no planes, no artillery pieces.

And nobody gives a damn.

Nobody gives a damn.

The Death March
Execution of Australian POW

The Japanese on the other hand, received reinforcements. On April 3, Good Friday, the final battle began. On April 8, the 200th and 515th were positioned just west of Cabcaben on Bataan Peninsula. In four months New Mexico’s artillery men had brought down 86 Japanese aircraft, but on the morning of 9 April 1942 they stood as infantrymen, their reinforcements never having arrived, they were alone, and “the last to lay down their arms.”

 

Following the surrender, the men would begin a march into Hell and into history. It would be called the Bataan Death March. Carlos was among the approximate 8,000 to 10,000 American survivors of that infamous march of April 1942. (Estimates place the numbers of Filipino soldiers and civilians forced to make the Death March at over 50,000, and as high as 70,000.)

 

Prisoners were first interned at Camp O’Donnell where hundreds died in ungodly filth from disease and starvation, and because they lost the strength, or the will, to fight on any longer. It is estimated that in the first six weeks following the Death March, one in six Americans died at O’Donnell, and by mid-May an American was dying every forty-five minutes.(1) The New Mexicans sought each other out, and stuck together as well as they could. In June, the men began moving north to the concentration camp Cabanatuan. By the end of that month, approximately 500 men had died of dysentery in Cabanatuan, and in July over 700.(2) June saw the outbreak of diphtheria.

 

From the beginning and throughout, the men suffered beatings and humiliation a non witness cannot possibly imagine. Executions were often prolonged for the pleasure of sadistic guards. If he were lucky, a man was killed quickly.

 

Carlos never saw his 22nd birthday. Like his early ancestors who came to the New World centuries before, he died half a world away from home in Cabanatuan prison camp on 7 July 1942.

 

When the end came, Manuel Armijo of Santa Fe, New Mexico was laying next to Carlos in “Zero Ward” in the camp hospital, so called because there was practically zero percent chance that a man could recover. Manuel Armijo did recover. Following his liberation from a Japanese prison camp at Omuta, Japan, he would gift an American flag to Carlos’ father, a Judge in Las Vegas, New Mexico. The Judge displayed the flag in his office until his retirement and remained bitter at the loss of his son for the rest of his life.

 

The Bataan-Corregidor Memorial Foundation of New Mexico, Inc. has dedicated itself to “maintain for future generations, the memory and unique history of the [New Mexico] men that served their country with bravery and great personal sacrifice on Bataan and Corregidor.”

 

Notes:

1.

Gavan Daws, Prisoners of the Japanese, POWs of World War II in the Pacific. 1994, William Morrow and Co., Inc., pp. 86, 87.

2.

Dorothy Cave, Beyond Courage, p. 224.