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VERNIE L. JAMES

200th Coast Artillery

(Anti-aircraft)

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SONS OF THE WEST

THE MEN OF THE TWO HON’ RED

 

By Larry Sanderson, 2004

With Permission

 

History is filled with stories of heroism and valor. As a society we build and repeat the legends to later generations. Some tales are immortalized in verse such as “Into the valley of death rode the 600…” Others are cast as challenges and rally cries such as “Remember the Alamo.” In many of these cases we lose sight of the actual story and the human sacrifice and heroism in the original acts. In other cases we unfortunately lose sight of the story entirely because for whatever reason it did not capture the imagination or it was overshadowed by other events.

 

Such is the case of the Sons of the West who formed the most decorated unit in Army history. Eighteen hundred young men of New Mexico went to war in 1941 and within 122 short days became one of the most heroic fighting forces in the history of the United States. But that was just the beginning of their battle and of their sacrifice.

 

Six hundred men died in the valley of death and were immortalized by Tennyson. Two hundred men died at the Alamo and every American schoolchild knows the story. Of the 1800 New Mexicans in the 200th Coast Artillery who fired the first shots of World War II only 900 came home and of those 900 only 600 survived past twelve months of peacetime. How many Americans know that New Mexico gave more sons and daughters per capita than any other state in the Union in World War II? How many Americans know that of the 12,000 Americans on the Bataan Death March that 1 in 6 was from New Mexico? How many Americans know that the now famous Navajo Code of World War II started when the Taos Pueblo Indians of the 200th were used to communicate between units because the Japanese had broken every other code? And how many Americans know that on April 9th, 1942 when the rest of the army surrendered the New Mexicans dug into a ridge above Cacaben airfield for the express purpose of proving that the Alamo was nothing compared to what New Mexico could do?

 

The story we want to tell you today occurred over 60 years ago but our journey to the story started just a year ago in a broken down building in Forrest, New Mexico. On the wall of an outbuilding at the James homestead we saw the name Vernie James written in whitewash. It is the name of a lost brother, an uncle never known, a hero unrecognized.

 

The story of Vernie is the story of the fabled 200th Coast Artillery, the “Two Hon’ erd” as it was known to the men. In January 1941 the 200th New Mexico National Guard Regiment was federalized. On April 4th 1941 the first major flood of peacetime draftees were inducted into service. At Fort Bliss in El Paso the 200th was scheduled to virtually double its ranks. The officers of the regiment wanted nothing to do with men from other states and told their sergeants, “Stand in the doorway at the induction center and pick out the New Mexicans, those are our boys and we want them.”

 

The result was an 1800 man regiment almost exclusively composed of New Mexicans including men like Manuel Armijo of Santa Fe, Jack Aldrich of Clovis, Lee Roach of Clovis and Otis Yates and Vernie James both of Forrest. April through September was spent in training and, of course, some weekend passes. Old Otis Yates had a system worked out. Each soldier got $5 for the weekend. Otis would rent a car and charge each man $5 and drop them off on his way home to Forrest. Otis survived the war and lived in Clovis until his death about five years ago.

 

The regiment trained hard and received their orders to ship out in September 1941… destination Manila. Our leaders in Washington needed to show that they supported MacArthur in the Philippines and the 200th was chosen. After all it had proven in training that it was the equal or better of any regular army regiment when it was selected as the best Anti-aircraft Regiment in the army.

 

The job of the 200th was to defend Clark Field (Fort Stotsenberg) and on December 8th, 1941 their work began. On that day, despite the fact that they had never fired the live ammunition, it was old and limited in altitude, they downed a half dozen Japanese planes, the first of 86 that they would shoot down in the conflict. That evening the regiment was split in two with 500 men assigned to the new 515th and 96 re-assigned to half-tracks. The 200th was charged to defend Clark Field and the new 515th was sent to defend Manila. Vernie was in Battery C and remained with the 200th at Clark Field.

 

Very quickly MacArthur decided to implement his plan to retreat to Bataan where the army could hold out until reinforcements arrived. The retreat to Bataan, often called one of the most skillful military maneuvers in history depended on the New Mexicans as part of the rear guard. In the process they were in the center of a battle that decimated a Japanese army of 14,000 men. By the time the retreat was complete the army was intact. The Japanese had to pause for reinforcements and the New Mexicans were becoming a legend in MacArthur’s command.

 

Over the next 122 days the New Mexicans shot down plane after plane, defended the line and protected airfields. Along with their comrades they starved, fought and waited for reinforcements. They became part of the famous sobriquet “The Battling Bastards of Bataan, no momma, no poppa and no Uncle Sam.”

 

In April 1942 the Japanese broke the lines and by the 9th of April the army knew the peninsula was lost. The 515th and the 200th came back together again at Cacaben. The army was ordered to surrender but the New Mexicans picked up their shovels and started to dig in for their last stand. Eventually they were persuaded to surrender but not First Sergeant Armijo, PFC Vernie James and the communications squad of C Battery. These six men headed for the hills to continue the fight. They were captured later and brought back to make the Death March with 12,000 fellow Americans.

 

The first stop after the March was Camp O’Donnell and the New Mexicans did it again. When the first ones arrived they took up station at the main gate and waited for each of their comrades to come through. Once again the sergeants claimed their boys at the door and soon they were together.

 

Most everyone was sent to Cabanatuan prison camp. Almost 10,000 Americans were in the camp. Many were in other smaller camps and many, like Lee Roach, were sent to perform labor by building airfields. By all accounts Vernie spent his time at Cabanatuan. Several years ago his sister Bertha was told that Vernie spent much of his time assisting the Chaplains at the camp.

 

By 1944 the Japanese knew it was only a matter of time until the Americans came back to the islands and they began packing prisoners into ships for transport to Japan or Manchuria. These ships became known as Hell ships because of their horrible conditions. Of the over 13 Hell ships three were sunk and one, the Arisan Maru, became infamous as the worst disaster in American naval history.

 

Vernie James and the Arisan Maru began their voyage together in September 1944. That month Vernie was sent to Bilibid prison in Manila in preparation for shipment to Japan or Manchuria. He and 1800 other Americans were loaded on the Arisan Maru and they set sail on October 10th, 1944. On the night of October 24th as the battle of Leyte Gulf raged the Arisan Maru was in the South China Sea. The USS SHARK II on her third war patrol radioed that she was in contact with a single transport and was commencing an attack. This message was the last ever received from the submarine. Her torpedoes found the Arisan Maru. A Catholic Priest from Indianapolis, Father Thomas Scecina, was on deck at the time. He went down into the holds and brought the comfort of God to the men he would die with. For his valor he was awarded the Silver Star posthumously.

 

The night of October 24th was a tragedy for more than the Arisan Maru. Records received from the Japanese after the close of the war concerning anti-submarine attacks report the attack made by SHARK on October 24, 1944. Depth charges were dropped 17 times, and the enemy reports having seen “bubbles, and heavy oil, clothes, cork, etc.” US Submarines had standing orders to close and attempt rescue of survivors of ships when there was a high probability of US servicemen involved. It is very likely that SHARK’s crew, realizing the situation, had lingered in the area to provide aid to the survivors in the water. That heroic act had fatal consequences for the 84 officers and men of SHARK II.

 

Vernie James was lost at sea but his spirit and memory are enshrined in the American Cemetery in Manila. His name is carved in the Tablets of the Missing.

 

PFC Vernie James died in October 1944 just three months before American Rangers liberated the Cabanatuan camp in a daring raid deep into enemy held territory. Vernie and 900 of his comrades did not make the trip home but they made history. Vernie and his comrades were recognized with awards and commendations the like of which had not been bestowed on any other regiment in American army history. For the record, PFC Vernie James is entitled to:

 

The Purple Heart

The Philippines Defense Medal

The Philippines Liberation Medal

The Prisoner of War Medal

The Bataan Medal

The World War II Victory Medal

The Asia-Pacific Campaign Medal

The American Defense Medal

The Presidential Unit Citation with three clusters

The Philippine Presidential Unit Citation

 

Vernie and his comrades were never immortalized in prose or in a slogan, but they have never been forgotten by their families or their government. These Sons of the West showed the world what it means to bring Anglos, Indians and Hispanics together in a common cause. These amigos lived, fought and died together and showed their army and their enemy that men of the West are something special indeed.

 

In December 1945 in a speech in Deming, New Mexico General Jonathan Wainwright paid tribute to the men of the regiment when he said:

“On December 8, 1941, when the Japanese unexpectedly attacked the Philippine Islands, the first point bombed was Ft. Stotsenberg. The 200th Coast Artillery, assigned to defend the Fort, was the first unit under The General of the Army Douglas MacArthur, to go into action defending our flag in the Pacific. First to fire, and last to lay down their arms! A fitting epitaph for a valiant Brigade which fought standing firmly in its appointed place and facing toward the enemy.”

But Vernie’s epitaph was not yet written.

 

In the early dawn hours of July 26th, 2002 Vernie’s great-niece Angie loaded her kids, the 3rd generation of James after Vernie, into the family car in Lubbock, Texas. Ninety minutes later she arrived in Clovis where she delivered a special package to her brother-in-law. Chuck immediately drove to the Main Gate at Cannon Air Force Base and the final chapter of Vernie’s story opened.

 

Fifty-eight years and seven months after Vernie James gave his life in service of his state and country the men and women of the United States Air Force 27th Fighter Wing under command of Colonel Robert Yates chose to write the epitaph of Vernie James by rendering long overdue honors to their fallen comrade-in-arms.

 

Two Air Police cars escorted Chuck to the headquarters building. At 0800 two members of the Base Security Force carefully unfolded the contents of the package and hoisted the 5' x 8', 40 square foot American Flag in honor of Private First Class Vernie L. James, 200th Coast Artillery. The bright colors of the new flag glistened in the New Mexico sun. As the flag unfurled in the slight westerly wind it was almost as if Forrest, 30 miles to the northwest, had sent the puff of wind to push the flag out proudly in honor of her fallen son. At evening retreat the flag was retired with honors and carefully folded in anticipation of the role it would play the next day.

 

On Saturday, the 27th of July 2002 more than 50 members of the James family gathered for their annual reunion in Clovis. Four generations of James gathered for what they thought would be another typical reunion. The 27th Fighter Wing had other plans that day. Major Darrel Cunningham, commanding officer of the 27th MOS Squadron, walked to the podium in front of the family and spoke eloquently of Vernie’s sacrifice and how the men and women of today’s armed forces draw moral strength and courage from their fallen comrades. Throughout the presentation Cunningham’s Master Sergeant stood quietly at attention holding the honored flag with medals laid carefully across the top. At the conclusion of his remarks Cunningham braced and walked slowly across the floor. Standing in front of Buford James, brother of Vernie, and Linda Sanderson, representing her mother Bertha, Cunningham bent forward and presented the flag and medals to Vernie’s family. As he ended his quiet words of thanks Cunningham rose in salute.

 

Vernie James’ story was concluded that day. In 1942 the men of the 200th stood firmly facing toward the enemy. Sixty years later on July 27th, 2002 Private First Class Vernie James stood in the hand of God and looked down as his family said goodbye.

AMERICAN BATTLE MONUMENTS COMMISSION

Vernie L. James

Private First Class, U.S. Army, 38012675, 200th Coast Artillery Regiment

Entered Service from: New Mexico

Died: October 24, 1944, Missing in Action or Buried at Sea

Tablets of the Missing at Manila American Cemetery Manila, Philippines

Awards: Purple Heart