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National Guard pays tribute to Bataan’s fall

POWs on the Bataan Death March. (U.S. Air Force photo)

The Bataan Death March is fading into a past growing more distant with each passing year.

But many who attended a Tuesday ceremony in Santa Fe marking the 82nd anniversary of Bataan’s fall want to ensure the memories of the horrific forced march in which thousands of American and Filipino captives endured brutality, deprivation and the constant threat of being killed don’t die with the last survivors.

It’s why this annual event has been held since 1946 and will continue to take place yearly into the future, military and local leaders told the 150 people gathered at the Bataan Memorial Building.

“I swore to you when I first got to be the adjutant general, and I tell you every year, this will continue,” Brig. Gen. Miguel Aguilar said.

The National Guard, hosting the event, presented the trappings you’d expect at this ceremony: a recorded playing of “Taps,” a seven-gun salute, and an honor guard raising a white flag denoting the commander who surrendered 75,000 troops — including 10,000 Americans — to the Japanese, though the men wanted to fight to the death.

Had the commander known the horrors that would follow, he might never had surrendered. It led to the prisoners, who were already hungry and worn out, being marched 66 miles through the sweltering jungle, with Japanese soldiers beating or killing those who were too tired, sick or injured to keep up.

The destination proved even more deadly. Hundreds of Americans and thousands of Filipinos who survived the march perished in the prison camps.

The battle in the early days of World War II was personal to the state: Of the 1,800 New Mexicans deployed to the Philippines in the 200th and 515th Coast Artillery regiments, only half made it back.

Just one New Mexican who was at Bataan is still alive. Valdemar DeHerrera had the fortitude to survive not only the brutal march and captivity but an immense passage of time.

He’s 104 and still walking and clear-thinking, according to his daughter, who attended the ceremony.

“He’s a healthy, happy man,” said Nancy DeHerrera Crochet, 60, the youngest of seven daughters. “His mind is all there. Sometimes he’s a little too smart for us.”

She said her father suffers from survivor’s guilt.

He was too weak to walk after fighting on Corregidor for days with no food and water, so his buddy carried him on his back for several miles, she said. When his friend collapsed from exhaustion, a Japanese soldier shot and killed him.

“My dad said that was very hard,” DeHerrera Crochet said. “My dad to this day still feels guilty.”

During the ceremony three family members of now-deceased New Mexico veterans who deployed to the Philippines each lit a candle and placed it in a glass holder to signify the light of the veterans’ spirits still shining.

Danielle Gonzales of Albuquerque ignited a candle for her grandfather, Agapito Silva who died in 2007.

After the ceremony, she talked about his story.

Silva escaped after the surrender, but was later captured. Gonzales said he wasn’t put into the death march but instead was imprisoned for 3 1/2 years in a labor camp in Japan, which was a horrible as Bataan.

Silva told of how he was beaten — how he was made to work in a mine without rations and amid outbreaks of dysentery and malaria, Gonzales said. When the mine collapsed and broke his back, he was still forced to work.

But he also talked about how his New Mexico comrades were with him, she said. They could speak Spanish and mock the guards, who couldn’t understand them, and find ways to persevere and survive, she said.

They formed a lasting bond and community that can be seen in events like this one, she said.

During the candle-lighting, Gonzales’ words echoed what many who attended the ceremony felt about loved ones who survived a terrible ordeal but are now gone.

“I place this light as a last token of affection, which leaves an empty space in the hearts of those they left behind,” she said.


(c) 2024 The Santa Fe New Mexican

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