National Guard — April 2011
Guard Roots: Battan Death March
Steps of Courage
Beleaguered U.S. and Filipino forces held off the Japanese on Bataan for four grueling months at the beginning of World War II. Then things became really difficult
AT A CEREMONY in Santa Fe., N.M., this month, a few old men–the number diminishes each year–will stand as erect as their aged frames will allow and recall the worst time in their lives.
They will remember their courageous but futile fight in the Philippines against the Japanese starting one day after the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. They will remember how they were inadequately supplied, but still managed to hold the overwhelming enemy forces at bay for four months until their command surrendered on April 9, 1942.
They will remember the 40 months of brutal captivity and the inhumane treatment they suffered and survived. And they will remember the many comrades who never lived to see another day of freedom.
The men who will stand outside the Bataan Memorial Building in Santa Fe were members of the New Mexico National Guard 70 years ago. When they deployed with the 200th Coast Artillery Regiment to the Southern Pacific in September 1941, they were 1,800 strong. Only about 900 returned from the war four years later.
They were part of a group of about 12,000 Americans and 67,000 Filipinos taken prisoner 69 years ago.
Among them were members of another National Guard unit. The 194th Tank Battalion was made up of Guardsmen from California, Kentucky, Illinois, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin. They, too, suffered greatly.
But no place has continued to remember and memorialize Bataan and all that name has come to represent like New Mexico, where only a handful of the fortunate returnees remain.
In 1947, the story goes, survivor Manuel Armijo went to the state capitol in Santa Fe and lowered the American flag. He then raised in Old Glory's place a white flag to symbolize the surrender five years earlier. He then returned the American flag to its place atop the flagpole.
That simple and poignant gesture has been repeated every year since then. For years, the veterans organized the event, but it's now the task of the New Mexico Guard.
"It's a very touching ceremony," says retired Brig. Gen. Jack Fox, the director of the Bataan Memorial Museum in Santa Fe.
One of the Bataan survivors planning to attend is Timothy Smith, 90, who lives in Gallup, N.M.
"It was the worst time of my life," he says in a most unnecessary declaration.
He had joined the Guard while still in high school, becoming part of the 111th Cavalry. When the unit became the 200th Coast Artillery Regiment, it went to Fort Bliss, Texas, for training and became the best anti-aircraft unit in the military.
To reward the unit for its accomplishment, the Army sent it to the Philippines in September 1941, as tensions between the United States and Japan mounted.
On Dec. 8, one day after the surprise attack in Hawaii, the New Mexicans became the first troops to fire in the battle of the Pacific under Gen. Douglas MacArthur. "First to fire" became a motto that survives to this day.
Smith acknowledges that fact.
"We shot down the first Jap planes," he says. The unit is credited with downing 86 Japanese aircraft during fighting in the Philippines.
For almost 50 years, the story of the New Mexico Guard and its role in the battle for the Philippines has been told and retold by retired Lt. Gen. Edward Baca, a former adjutant general for the state and onetime chief of the National Guard Bureau.
He is adamant in his belief that the defense of the Philippines by the 19,000 Americans and 12,000 Filipino troops helped win the war in the Pacific despite the ultimate surrender of the island nation.
Ordered by MacArthur to hold for six months while being resupplied and reinforced, the force held for four months with no resupply or reinforcements, throwing off the Japanese timetable for its march to Australia in the process.
"Really, when you get down to it," Baca says, "the Japanese army was never able to recover from it."
By preventing the Japanese from reaching Australia early in the war, he says, the battle of the Philippines altered the course of the war and perhaps saved the world.
For the men holding the ground, life was hard. They were outmanned and outgunned. Supplies and reinforcements remained in Hawaii, a conscious decision by a command that considered the Philippines a lost cause.
"They were down to one ration a day," Baca says. "They were literally starving."
The men were racked with disease but had no medicine. Smith says dysentery was decimating the defenders. A doctor told him to burn some clean wood and eat the charcoal left by the blaze to ward off the symptoms. It worked, Smith says.
As the Japanese invasion force pushed inland, Smith's gun crew was ordered to abandon its weapon and pick up rifles. The men were given five bullets and an empty promise of more.
Finally, after fighting a delaying action that took them to Bataan Peninsula, the "Battling Bastards of Bataan," as they began to call themselves ("no mama, no papa, no Uncle Sam"), were forced into surrender. The capitulation was made by Gen. Edward King, who commanded all American and Filipino forces.
"We thought that was going to be our last day," Smith says. The Japanese promised to carry their prisoners in trucks if the Americans did not destroy the vehicles, Smith says. Instead, the enemy took the trucks, but forced the prisoners on the long, deadly walk now known as the Bataan Death March.
"Their word wasn't worth a damn," Smith says now. Back in New Mexico, newspaper headlines virtually screamed, "Bataan Falls!" and "New Mexico Soldiers Feared Trapped in Bataan Capture."
It would be nearly four years before New Mexico and America would learn details of the horrors that followed. Marched 60 miles in searing heat, tens of thousands of prisoners, including Filipino civilians, were, in Baca's words, "in the hands of perhaps the most ruthless captor in the history of warfare."
Weak with hunger and disease and crazed by thirst, men struggled to put one foot before the other. Those who fell were often shot or run through with a bayonet. Those who helped fallen comrades met the same fate.
The number who died along the way is impossible to know, but estimates run from 6,000 to three times that number.
But the end of the march did not end the cruelty or the suffering. The prison camp in the Philippines was described by many as a "hell hole." Many died there before they were loaded aboard "hell ships" for transfer to Japan in the fall of 1942.
Despite rules against making prisoners of war do work, the Japanese captors sent their prisoners to work in factories, mines and farms.
Smith says it was a life saver for many.
"The ones that kept busy and worked, they made it," he says. "The ones who laid down, they didn't."
Asked how he survived, Smith says, "A lot of it was luck. A lot of it was circumstances," and he mentions again the charcoal treatment that prevented his death from dysentery.
Baca calls survival under such conditions "a superhuman effort."
His friendship with so many of the New Mexico survivors over the years has given him particular insight into the reason for their survival. He says it was a generation toughened by an economic depression and hardship.
But the New Mexicans, he says, were strengthened, too, by brotherhood. During pre-war training at Fort Bliss, other soldiers, trying to ridicule them, called them "cowboys, Indians and Mexicans."
They were those things, but they were more. They became brothers even before they went overseas.
In her wonderful book about the 200th Coast Artillery in World War II, Beyond Courage, Dorothy Cave tells how Indians in the unit taught their colleagues to suck on pebbles to push away thirst.
She details dozens of stories of sacrifice for each other, from sharing a small portion of rice to carrying a stricken buddy along those 60 terrible miles.
Smith shared with others the charcoal that saved his life. Baca, who first met Bataan veterans when he joined the Guard in 1956 and now delivers eulogies at their funerals, says, "They were all so humble. They all talked about their buddy and what their buddy did."
And the entire state has embraced the men in the nearly 70 years since they returned. The old state capitol where the ceremony will be held is called the Bataan Memorial Building. Memorials dot the state in hometowns of the fallen or the survivors.
"It has become a large part of New Mexico history, not just New Mexico National Guard history," says Fox, the museum director.
The New Mexico men who survived Bataan have been living examples of survival, sacrifice and camaraderie.
But Smith, who spent an entire year in the hospital after he returned in 1945, offers another lesson. Asked what he thinks of the Japanese and if he harbors any animosity toward the people who held him captive for so long and treated him and others so cruelly, he says he does not.
"If you start thinking nothing but hatred, it will eat you up," he says. "It's better to forgive."
Ron Jensen can be contacted at (202) 408-5885 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bataan Artifacts Sought
The National Guard Memorial Museum is seeking artifacts from the Guard's involvement in the Bataan Death March, including the battle before and the subsequent captivity. Donations will be added to the World War II exhibit. The museum is located at NGAUS headquarters in Washington, D.C. For more information, contact Cathleen Pearl, the museum deputy director, (202) 408-5890 or email@example.com.