Survivor went from small-town life to face ravages of war

 

From the hot, dry climate of the Mesilla Valley to the hot, wet jungles of the Philippines and back, Lorenzo Ybarra Banegas is a survivor.

Banegas was born and raised in San Ysidro, a little farming village about three miles north of Las Cruces, on May 22, 1919.

With the winds of war brewing in early 1941, Lorenzo tried his best to join the Army but three times was told no too thin, flat feet.


Lorenzo Banegas

A Btry 515th CA(AA)

April 15, 2000

“I could have gotten a deferment not to go in the service because I was a farmer, but I wanted to go. Three times the doctors told me no,” Banegas said.

Finally, a doctor offered to “fix his papers.”

Soon, Banegas was headed to Santa Fe for his swearing in. From there he was sent to Fort Bliss in El Paso for training.

After about six months, his unit was shipped to the Philippines were they arrived at Clark Field on Sept. 16, 1941. There the unit trained and Banegas performed duties operating search lights and generators.

He recalls hearing the news about Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

“We thought the Pearl Harbor announcement was training,” Banegas said. “Later, when we saw the planes, we thought they were American Navy planes. We started waving at them. They started to drop things from the planes, and we thought they were leaflets. We began to run toward them before we realized they were bombs.”

And so it was that he ended up in war.

“My platoon sergeant was killed by a bomber about the third day of the war,” Banegas said.

Banegas said he saw the man lying down. He tried to help him up, but when he turned him over, the sergeant’s face and stomach were completely ripped open.

“From then on, I couldn’t eat, I got that smell of gunpowder and human blood in my nose and I couldn’t eat for about two weeks,” he said.

The Americans were steadily moved further and further along the Bataan Peninsula. They were running out of food and many were sick.

“I was so sick that when I saw the bombs coming down. I didn’t care. I figured malaria or bombs, I’m going to go either way,” Banegas said.

The American troops — soldiers, sailors, marines, nurses — held off the Japanese for more than three months before being surrendered April 9, 1942.

Banegas said, at first, he thought he would only end up a prisoner for two or three months at most. Instead, he spent 3 1/2 years as a POW, working in the fields in the Philippines and later in a coal mine in Japan.

He said he did not consider escaping.

“It was too hard to escape, and you would have to find a Filipino family to feed you. And if the Japanese found you, they would shoot the whole family,” Banegas said. “We were barefooted. It was hard to walk from the camp to where we worked, it was about a mile to a mile-and-a-half.”

He said he contracted diphtheria, which caused calluses on his hands and feet to peel off, leaving a bloody, pulpy mess.

Eventually, his diphtheria worsened.

“I was there in the working area. The diphtheria caused my feet to swell up, my tongue swelled and there was pus on top of mouth. I couldn’t swallow so I gave my ration of rice to my friend,” Banegas said.

He remembers being taken away to the “Zero Ward,” the name for the small infirmary in the camp.

“They called it the ‘Zero Ward’ because zero percent would come back. When I got sent there, they hugged me like I wasn’t coming back,” Banegas said.

He said he was so sick the American doctor who administered to the prisoners offered to give him three shots of medicine instead of the normal one dosage. Banegas agreed, feeling as if he would not make it three days normally required for administration of the shots.

“About 24 hours later I began to feel better, enough to swallow. But I was completely terrorized because I could not see because my eyes were blurry,” Banegas said.

“They put me to sleep between these two fellows, and I woke up in the night and wanted to turn over, but the one fellow’s arm was on me so I tried to lift it and when I did, I found it was cold and stiff and I knew he was dead.

“Then I turned to the fellow on the other side of me, and he was dead too because his eyes and mouth were wide open. I was begging for someone to come in and move me because I didn’t want to stay there between those two fellows.”

Despite the odds, Banegas returned from the Zero Ward.

Despite the trials of his war experiences in foreign lands, Banegas remains the epitome of a small-town American hero.

“I was born here and raised here, and I hope I die here,” Banegas said.

 

Las Cruces Sun News

 

Mr. Banegas passed away on 15 December 2001, unaware that his Corrido de Bataan, written in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp, was to be included in a Smithsonian Center for Latino Initiatives exhibit in Washington, D.C. beginning in February 2002.