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Historian delves into the impact of war on New Mexicans

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — David V. Holtby’s new history book, “Lest We Forget – World War I and New Mexico,” is an achievement of scope and detail.

David Holtby

Holtby, an Albuquerque-based historian, probes the lives of New Mexicans – soldiers overseas and civilians on the home front – before, during and after the Great War.

His years of research produce a motherland of fascinating recollections. Though many of the stories are about the soldiers of the American Expeditionary Forces on the frontlines, Holtby also explains how death and shell shock, later known as PTSD, affected New Mexicans years later. In the book, New Mexico becomes the template for understanding how the war heavily influenced the country.

Holtby digs up remembrances by New Mexicans who were doughboys in the trenches, support staff behind the lines and civilians at home.

Homemakers sent food to men in uniform, ordinary people were embroiled in politics, and others were involved in the government’s domestic surveillance policies to root out disloyalty.

Holtby explains his purpose: “It’s my job to engage in the collective process of bringing forward and into the present these forgotten stories and voices from the war and post-war, and into 1941.” Indeed, he accomplished that.

One of the first pre-digital files he read at the New Mexico State Archives was an account by Adolph Abeyta, a heavy-equipment operator from Tucumcari who was working for a railroad in Las Vegas, N.M.

“Abeyta was the second document I looked at, and it opened up the whole war,” Holtby said.

Also spurring the historian’s research was access to information in newly created digital files.

Abeyta volunteered for the Army after Gen. John J. Pershing asked America’s railroads to release all their men to build thousands of miles of railroads in France.

“Abeyta and hundreds of other New Mexicans were sent to the town of Toul. … They built railroad cars and engines and railroad lines” to transport troops, ammunition and food to fighting units, Holtby wrote.

Abeyta’s narrative continues after his return stateside.

“He talks about being gassed,” Holtby said. “He started getting (veterans) benefits in the 1920s, but FDR started slashing federal pensions to disabled World War I soldiers. It was part of the Depression-era budget cuts. … In the ’30s, Abeyta served as Quay County sheriff.”

In the chapter on “Volunteers,” Holtby shines a light on Tura A. Hawk, who came to New Mexico in 1916 to work as a suffrage advocate. She joined the Agricultural Extension Service to help promote domestic food conservation to provide more food for men in uniform.

At a conference in Albuquerque, “Hawk and home-demonstration agents from various counties delivered lectures and conducted hands-on cooking sessions to support the … campaign (by preparing meatless meals),” Holtby writes.

Another figure Holtby writes about is Lt. Harry Rogers of Lakewood, south of Artesia. He was given command of a depleted platoon, knocked out a machine-gun nest and captured 30 German soldiers in the Meuse-Argonne offensive. Days later, a sniper killed Rogers. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his calmness in keeping his men in order and helping repel counterattacks.

Patriotism —— or the lack of it —— was a critical subject at home in wartime New Mexico. Federal agents looked into alleged violations of laws regarding the draft, alien enemy registration and espionage. Post offices were authorized to open and censor mail as a way to expose disloyalty. One case targeted Walter Dillon, the head of the Socialist Party of New Mexico, who apparently sent mail urging draft resistance. A postal inspector read Dillon’s letter and termed it “very vitriolic,” Holtby writes.

A challenge for the general reader is the many interlaced names, places, institutions and issues. Perhaps a way to better understand the book is to attend one of Holtby’s lectures.

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