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Twists and turns of war

A photo of the USS New Mexico after the Japanese surrender. Mount Fuji can be seen in the background. (Source: U.S. Navy)

There are often twists and turns of fate that happen during wartime. Some of those took place on Jan. 6, 1945. That day was also the 33rd anniversary of the admission of New Mexico as the nation’s 47th State. World War II had been raging for more than three years and the state was playing an integral role in the war effort. This included the top-secret Manhattan Project that would ultimately force the surrender of Japan. Half a world away, the state’s namesake battleship, the 32,000-ton USS New Mexico (BB-40), was engaged in a fierce and bloody battle to retake the Philippine island of Luzon.

The naming of a Navy warship after New Mexico was an important tribute to the newly admitted state, which had joined the Union on Jan. 6, 1912. USS New Mexico was launched on April 23, 1917, and commissioned on May 20, 1918. The new battleship incorporated numerous advances, including a revolutionary turbo-electric system of propulsion and an improved main battery of twelve 14-inch guns that fired 1,400 pound shells.

This head-on photo was taken by George Herder, who was on the bridge of the USS New Mexico when the kamikaze pilot struck on Jan. 6, 1945. Herder survived the attack. (Source: U.S. Navy)

The loss of the Philippines had brought the war painfully home to New Mexico early in the conflict. In what turned out to be a fateful decision, 1,816 soldiers of the New Mexico National Guard 200th and 515th Coast Artillery had been deployed to the Philippines in September 1941. Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, and the next day invaded the Philippines. Nearly half of the New Mexico National Guard soldiers would not survive to return home, with many perishing in the infamous Bataan Death March.

Three years later, the tide of the war had turned dramatically against the Japanese. The Americans under the command of Douglas MacArthur were engaged in a campaign to retake the Philippine island of Luzon and its capital, Manila. In another twist of fate, the USS New Mexico was in the thick of the action to retake Luzon, site of the Bataan Death March.

The USS New Mexico was assigned to provide pre-invasion bombardment at Lingayen Gulf on the morning of Jan. 6, 1945. Using her 14-inch guns to shell Japanese positions, USS New Mexico delivered a measure of retribution against the Japanese forces responsible for the Bataan Death March.

Desperate to turn the war in their favor, the Japanese had unleashed swarms of kamikaze attacks to defend the Philippines. One of those kamikazes hit the USS New Mexico around noon on Jan. 6, 1945. It struck the ship’s bridge on that statehood day, at what would have been around 9 p.m. Mountain War Time in New Mexico. British Lt. General Herbert Lumsden was on the bridge to observe U.S. amphibious tactics, along with Bill Chickering, a veteran Time magazine correspondent. Lumsden and Chickering were both killed, as was the skipper of the USS New Mexico’s, Capt. Robert Fleming and 27 others. Despite the damage to the USS New Mexico, the ship’s 14-inch guns continued to pound Luzon, paving the way for Gen. Douglas MacArthur to retake the Philippines.

New Mexico was present for the formal surrender of Japan in Tokyo Bay on Sept. 2, 1945. The atomic bombs that ended the war had been dropped less than a month earlier. The B-29 Superfortresses that bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki took off from Tinian, which the USS New Mexico had helped liberate. The atomic bomb had been developed in Los Alamos and had been tested at the Trinity Site near Alamogordo. The victory was made possible by the contributions of millions of men and women who served in the military and on the home front, including those who paid the ultimate sacrifice 75 years ago on the USS New Mexico.

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