New Mexico Families Keep Alive Memories of Soldiers' Bataan Death March

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U.S. Army Reserve 1st Lt. Sylvia Orozco, with the 383rd Quartermaster Battalion, and Capt. Roxanna Flores and Sgt. Desiree Lopez with the 356th Transportation Company, approach mile marker 8 on the 26-mile Bataan Memorial Death March at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico, Mar. 17, 2019. (U.S. Army Reserve photo/Brandon R. Mace)
U.S. Army Reserve 1st Lt. Sylvia Orozco, with the 383rd Quartermaster Battalion, and Capt. Roxanna Flores and Sgt. Desiree Lopez with the 356th Transportation Company, approach mile marker 8 on the 26-mile Bataan Memorial Death March at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico, Mar. 17, 2019. (U.S. Army Reserve photo/Brandon R. Mace)

Margaret Garcia plans to walk the trails and sidewalks of her Albuquerque neighborhood this month, carrying a picture of her dad.

She won't be the only one. Across New Mexico over the next week or so — even in the throes of a pandemic — families of the soldiers who endured the Bataan Death March will continue a similar tradition, one that recognizes bravery, loss and remembrance.

"I bring water," Garcia said. "But I won't eat during the march in their honor, as they sure didn't."

Garcia and thousands of others typically travel to White Sands this weekend for the Bataan Memorial Death March to commemorate what thousands of New Mexico National Guardsmen went through in the early days of World War II in the Philippines. Many make the tough trek through a course in the desert. Nearly 9,000 people participated in 2019 for the 30th annual march.

This year, between Friday and April 18, other marchers will take their own routes around the state and the country, and Sunday two New Mexicans — Evans Garcia and John Mirabal — will be posthumously honored with the Congressional Gold Medal in a virtual ceremony.

After U.S. forces in the Philippines surrendered to the Japanese in early 1942, as many as 65,000 Filipino and 12,000 American troops were forced to march about 65 miles in six days in what became known as the Bataan Death March. Along the way, many died and others suffered through malaria, combat wounds, dehydration, starvation and physical abuse. As many as 10,000 died.

"When you're taking New Mexico military history, you definitely have to give special consideration to the Bataan Death March," said State Historian Rob Martinez. "It's a special wound because a lot died, and also a lot survived to tell about it."

Margaret Garcia said her father grew up in Southern New Mexico, farming in the Mesilla Valley and riding a horse named Blue. Evans Garcia's real first name was Evangelisto, but a kindergarten teacher couldn't pronounce that. He enlisted in the National Guard at 27 in 1940 and wound up in the Philippines. Once he was caught stealing food in a Japanese prison camp before talking his way out of a death sentence by firing squad, according to family lore.

"I guess a lot of people didn't like to talk about it, but dad like to talk about his war stories and the people he was with," Margaret Garcia said. "Those relationships with other prisoners who went through the same thing meant a lot to him."

Like Garcia, Tom Mirabal used to attend military reunions with his father John Mirabal, who would talk about being prodded with bayonets and sabotaging rail cars while a prisoner of war. He added his dad's family received a telegram that he was missing in action sometime around 1943 and was presumed dead.

Both Garcia and Mirabal survived the death march and were prison laborers at Fukuoka No. 17 Branch Prisoner of War Camp, where they were freed in 1945.

Garcia died in 2011, and Mirabal died in 2001. In 2017, the Veterans of Foreign Wars estimated fewer than 60 survivors of the Bataan Death March were still alive.

"Most everyone forgot who he was when he was a prisoner over there, so to receive this recognition is really special," Tom Mirabal said. "Those reunions meant a lot to him, so even if they're not around to still have them, it's nice that the memorial carries on."

This article is written by Dillon Mullan from The Santa Fe New Mexican and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the Industry Dive publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@industrydive.com.

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