“We’re the battling bastards of Bataan.
No mama, no papa, no Uncle Sam
… No pills, no planes, no artillery pieces
And nobody gives a damn.”
— From a World War II soldiers’ protest song
To some New Mexicans, not much has changed in 75 years. To them, it sometimes seems that, even today, nobody gives a damn about the American servicemen – many of them National Guardsmen from New Mexico, and a large number of them Hispanic – who defended the Philippines during an especially dark episode as America was drawn into World War II.
They hope to change that before the few remaining New Mexico veterans of the Bataan Death March are gone.
And time’s a-wasting, because the 19 veterans of the 200th and 515th Coast Artillery who are still alive are at least in their mid-90s. Tony Reyna of Taos Pueblo is 100.
So the New Mexican Hispanic Culture Preservation League has renewed its 13-year-old effort to persuade Congress to honor the troops who defended Bataan, living or dead, with the Congressional Gold Medal.
“These guys deserve to be recognized. But it’s going to take a great effort,” says league member Conchita Lucero. “New Mexicans need to let their congressmen know they want their support, but they also need to call family and friends in other states and ask them to take a few minutes to contact their congressmen.”
There is a reason for this new hope. Things are happening.
On July 14, Democratic Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico, who has long supported honoring the Bataan defenders, submitted S. 3235, which would grant the medal. He has introduced similar legislation in past sessions.
And on March 16, Rep. David McKinley, a Republican from West Virginia, introduced H.R. 4766, which would establish the award for the Bataan veterans and also those from other regional islands.
Opportunity is knocking.
“I’m concerned because they’re very old, and I want to get this done for them,” Udall said. “It’s a priority for me and the New Mexico delegation to grant the Congressional Gold Medal to the troops who defended Bataan in World War II. Their story is one of tremendous personal sacrifice and patriotic duty to our nation … It’s a story of bravery, endurance, hardship and patriotism, and the troops who fought and died for our country deserve the highest recognition.”
Ralph Rodriguez Jr., a medic who served with the 515th, turns 99 in October. I visited with him on Thursday in his home outside Old Town, and though his speech is soft and halting, he said he still has “very vivid memories” of the torture he and his fellow soldiers suffered after they were forced to surrender: the “denial of medicine,” the “beatings,” the “brutality that was not human.”
“I was very lucky,” he said, adding with a still strong spirit: “I never was afraid of the Japanese, and I didn’t have to beg them for anything.”
The reason a big, national push is needed is that in the Senate, a bill to grant the Congressional Gold Medal must be co-sponsored by two-thirds of the senators. And many likely do not understand the conflict or know its importance to the American war effort.
The history is complicated, but here it is, in a nutshell:
The day after Pearl Harbor, on Dec. 8, 1941, the Japanese attacked the Philippines, where about 1,800 men from the 200th and 515th Coast Artillery Regiment were among those deployed. The New Mexico group is credited with being the “first to fire” on the enemy.
Against overwhelming odds and with little support, U.S. and Philippine fighters were able to withstand the Japanese assault for four months before being ordered to surrender.
“By holding off the enemy as long as they did, they changed the momentum of the war and allowed the Allies to liberate the Philippines,” Udall said. “These troops then were taken prisoner and were forced on the Bataan Death March. They suffered under horrific conditions as prisoners of war until they were liberated in 1945.”
There were 1,816 men in the 200th and 515th Coast Artillery, and 829 died in battle, as prisoners, or shortly after they were liberated. A total of 1,000 Americans and 9,000 Filipinos perished during the Bataan Death March.
Lucero said that besides the bravery shown in combat, we should remember that, even as prisoners, the troops were able to conduct many acts of sabotage against their captors.
It would be worth your time to read one of the many books about Bataan – Lucero recommends “Beyond Courage” by Dorothy Cave of Roswell – or try to find a reputable history site online.
Some recent recipients of the medal include the Navajo Code Talkers, the Tuskegee Airmen, Doolittle’s Tokyo Raiders and the Monuments Men.
Lucero said, “It’s time for our Bataan veterans to be recognized.”
Now you know how you can help.
UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to editorial page editor Dan Herrera at 823-3810 or firstname.lastname@example.org.