William “Bill” Overmier liked to joke that he joined the state National Guard in 1940 to earn gas money.
In those days, he liked to race his old Chevy six-cylinder roadster against other cars on Central Avenue in Albuquerque, which was just a dirt road, he told his son, Alan Overmier.
Bill Overmier thought all he had to do to earn his $19 a month with the National Guard was to march around on the parade grounds.
“It didn’t work out the way they promised,” the World War II veteran, who survived several years in a Japanese prisoner of war camp, told The New Mexican in 2015.
Overmier, who worked in the construction business following his military service, died at the home he built in Albuquerque on Aug. 2 at the age of 101, his son said. He was among the few remaining World War II soldiers who lived through the POW experience in the Pacific.
The New Mexicans who signed up for the National Guard in the months leading up to America’s entry into World War II probably had little knowledge that they would soon be engaged in one of the first major conflicts of the war with Japan.
By November 1941, Overmier was stationed in the Philippines, where he and his fellow soldiers in Bataan battled the Japanese following America’s entry into the war.
The U.S. troops were outgunned, fighting a modern war with World War I equipment. The fire from their aged three-inch anti-aircraft guns only reached about 8,000 feet. But the Japanese fighter planes flew no lower than 10,000 feet, he recalled.
“We spent nine months learning how to fire those damn guns, and we couldn’t reach them,” he said.
He escaped the Bataan Death March by grabbing a seat in one of the last small patrol boats to leave the peninsula for nearby Corregidor in Manila Bay. Even then, last-minute danger lurked as a Japanese dive bomber made its way toward the vessel.
A machine-gunner on a nearby Naval ship brought down the attacking dive bomber, saving Overmier and the rest of the passengers.
“He was a lucky man in the sense that he got to Corregidor,” Alan Overmier said of his father. “They held out an extra month, which is why he did not have to go on the death march.”
Corregidor surrendered in early May. Overmier was sent by prison ship to a Japanese POW camp in Yokohama. He survived over three years on a daily diet of rice — not much — and willpower. The one time he argued with a Japanese guard, he got a coal chisel in his back — which earned him a Purple Heart upon his return to the U.S.
Overmier was dismissive of the award, telling his family members to throw it away. They did not, Alan Overmier said.
The elder Overmier had no delusions about what he did during the war. He wanted to survive and did by putting his construction skills to use in a Japanese shipyard as he waited for America to win the war.
“I didn’t want to die,” he said in the 2015 interview. “That’s all there was to it. I didn’t want to die.”
Overmier was born on Valentine’s Day 1920 on a farm in Mosquito Township, Ill. He moved with his family to Albuquerque eight years later.
Following the war, he met his wife, Anna Lee, whom he married in 1948. Though military doctors told Overmier he would not be able to have children because of his war trauma, he proved them wrong: The couple had five children.
Overmier, who is survived by Anna Lee and their five children, was a regular attendee at battle of statewide Bataan memorial services and commemorations through 2018. In pre-pandemic times, the Santa Fe-based Bataan memorial event would draw three to five survivors of the conflict — not all of whom endured the death march.
But the passage of time has cut the number of survivors down, and in 2018, Overmier was the only Bataan-Corregidor survivor to attend.
“You don’t want to forget,” he said at that event. “For years and years we always have to fight for something … you don’t want to forget.”
Though proud of his service, Overmier was forever frustrated at the U.S. military’s surrender in the Philippines, telling his son and others that it was the politicians, not the military, who lost that campaign.
When people called him a hero, he corrected them, his son said.
“No, no,” he replied. “I was just a guy who was doing my job.”
Alan Overmier said his father was buried with full military honors in Sunset Memorial Park in Albuquerque.
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