Authors chronicle NM’s diverse contributions to winning WWII

“New Mexico in World War II” is kind of a scrapbook. It’s rich with archival wartime-era photographs. The black-and-white images touch on the diverse roles residents played, whether in uniform, as civilians, on the battlefront, behind the lines or on the homefront. The text gives the reader explanations of topics in accompanying images.

Archival photo of midget Japanese submarine, captured at Pearl Harbor, moving down Albuquerque’s Central Avenue as part of a drive for war bonds to finance America’s war effort. (Albuquerque Museum)

The first chapter is about the infamous Bataan Death March in 1942 in the Philippines. Many New Mexican soldiers died of torture, starvation and tropical diseases while under siege in Bataan province, during the march and later in hellish Japanese prisoner-of-war camps.

The second chapter jumps to the Navajo Code Talkers. Navajos, recruited by the Marine Corps, had learned English in boarding school and knew the Navajo language from childhood. The recruits used Navajo words as the basis for messages embedded in a secret military code. The so-called “code within a code” aided Allied victories in key battles in the Pacific. The Japanese never broke it.

Secrecy also shrouded a prominent national effort known as the Manhattan Project, featured in chapter 5. With its operational hub in the closed city of Los Alamos, the project’s scientists developed a powerful nuclear weapon.

Their research produced the world’s first nuclear explosion, at Trinity Site in southern New Mexico, in July 1945. Weeks later the United States dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt had created the project at the urging of physicists Albert Einstein and Leo Szilard, expressing fear that Nazi Germany would develop a bomb.

Army Col. Leslie Groves headed the Manhattan Project. Under him, physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer led a team that designed the weapon. Other chapters present a mix of numerous and varied photographs of people, individually and in groups, who contributed to the war effort in their own ways. Here are some of the people in those photos:

• Crowds lined Downtown Albuquerque’s Central Avenue to view a Japanese submarine that had been captured at Pearl Harbor. The sub was being displayed to encourage citizens to buy war bonds.

• Pvt. Jose Valdez, born in Gobernador, was credited with helping a patrol, under fire from two companies of German infantrymen, reach safety. Wounded, he continued firing until he died. A U.S. Army transport ship was named in Valdez’s honor. He’s in the “New Mexico’s Heroes” chapter.

• Sixty-three New Mexican women, recruited into the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps’ Coronado Platoon, are shown marching in uniform in Santa Fe.

• German POWs were housed in camps in Roswell and Lordsburg and in smaller camps elsewhere in the state.

• American bombardiers are shown in training to learn the classified Norden bombsight at Carlsbad Army Airfield.

• An all-Black unit of the Army Corps of Engineers, on leave from Alamogordo Army Airfield, is seen relaxing at White Sands National Monument in 1942. U.S. military units remained segregated during the war.

• Japanese-American families were forced to relocate to internment camps because the government feared they were security risks. Two of the camps were in Santa Fe and Lordsburg. Ironically, some internees’ sons fought in a U.S. Army regiment, which the book described as the most highly decorated army combat unit during the war.

Richard Melzer and John Taylor discuss and sign copies of “New Mexico in World War II” from 1:30-3:30 p.m. Sunday, July 18 at Treasure House Books & Gifts, 2012 S. Plaza St. NW, Old Town, Albuquerque.

The book’s authors are historians Richard Melzer, of Belen, emeritus professor of history at the University of New Mexico, and John Taylor, of Peralta.

“I think people know about various parts of the state’s contributions, but not necessarily as a whole,” Melzer said. “It’s a good New Mexico history book for middle and high school students.”

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