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Looking Backward

The Home Front

The good, the bad and the curious aspects of New Mexico's role in World War II.

by Jeff berg

 

 

Every day we lose more and more World War II veterans. Of the 16 million Americans who served in the armed forces during the war, it is estimated that about 600 per day don't make it to the next sunrise. Somewhere between 1.2 and 1.7 million of those US veterans still survive to mark Pearl Harbor Day this month.

New Mexico, as everyone knows, played an enormous role in the war — the development and testing of the atomic bomb at Los Alamos and White Sands, respectively.

ww2
Click the map for a more legible image.

Map of New Mexico’s WWII sites. (City of Albuquerque)

Then there were the members of the New Mexico National Guard who were captured at Bataan and took part in the Bataan Death March and imprisonment. About 1,800 New Mexicans participated in the battle at Bataan, with fewer than half returning home after the end of the war. Battery G of the 200th Coast Artillery, part of the Bataan defense, listed its home station as Silver City, while the Regimental Headquarters and Headquarters Battery listed Deming as their home stations. The 200th was an offshoot of the New Mexican cavalry units that were sent to Cuba during the Spanish-American War.

New Mexican members of the Dine (Navajo) tribe became "Code Talkers," whose distinctive language helped defeat the Japanese army in the Pacific. (There were also Comanche Code Talkers in the European Theatre, and several from the Meskwaki Nation in Iowa were used in North Africa.)

Although not a Code Talker, Sgt. Joe Kieyoomia was a Dine of the 200th Coast Artillery who was taken prisoner on Bataan and survived the Death March and several years of imprisonment. He was tortured repeatedly, including being forced to stand in the snow until his feet froze, tearing the skin off his soles when he was finally allowed to move. His captors at first thought he was a Japanese traitor, but when they finally realized that error they tried to force Sgt. Kieyoomia to break the code. He was not trained in the Code Talkers' lingo, which used shortened and metaphorical versions of the native language (such as the Dine word for "potato" for "hand grenade"), and he thought it was gibberish. Sgt. Kieyoomia also has the distinction of surviving the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki, crediting the thick concrete walls of his prison cell for his survival.

New Mexico also contributed two journalistic icons, writer Ernie Pyle and cartoonist Bill Mauldin, to the story of World War II. War correspondent Pyle, although originally from Indiana, was fond of Albuquerque, where he lived for a few years before his death in the Pacific. He wasn't as embracing of other parts of our fair state, noting that many of the authors and artists in Santa Fe were "freaks and pretenders," who had "overinflated views of themselves." (That same sentiment is shared by many 70 years later.)

Mauldin, who was born in Mountain Park, NM, in Otero County, later moved to Arizona, but is still seen as a great New Mexico-bred talent. His cartoon work, often depicting "Willie and Joe," two bedraggled infantrymen, led to a great print career and earned him two Pulitzer Prizes.

 

But New Mexico went above and beyond the call of duty in other ways as well. Nearly 50,000 men from the state were drafted or enlisted in the armed services, with around 2,500 New Mexicans giving their lives. New Mexico had the highest rate of volunteers and the highest percentage of casualties of all the then-48 states.

Additionally, New Mexico was home to prison camps, several Japanese-American internment camps, artillery and aerial bombing ranges, training stations, and a number of other military installations, many of which were clustered in southern New Mexico.

Among them was the Alamogordo Army Air Field, which is now Holloman Air Base, a training base for B-17 and B-24 bomber crews. It also was a base where WASPs — Women Airforce Service Pilots — were used, flying B-17s, C-47s and at least six other types of planes. They did cargo deliveries, search missions and flight checks.

WASPs served extensively stateside, with nearly 1,100 women passing the training of the 25,000 or so that applied. WASPs were also used at Biggs Field in El Paso, Clovis Army Air Field, Deming Army Air Field (where the women flew at least four different types of military aircraft) and Fort Sumner Army Air Field, where they were used as utility pilots for C-47s and C-53s. No African-American women were allowed as WASPs, although one Lakota Sioux was accepted; it is not clear if any Latinas were part of the crew. During the short existence of the WASPs, 38 women died. They were not considered veterans or even part of the military until the late 1970s, after a long fight with the military higher-ups.

Other air bases were established in Carlsbad, Roswell, Hobbs and of course Albuquerque, the former Albuquerque Army Air Base. That base is now Kirtland Air Force Base, the sixth largest airbase in the US. All were used for training.

The famed Tuskegee airmen, the US' first African-American aerial combat group, also trained in Deming and Roswell.

 

Prisoners of war were also sent to New Mexico, which had at least three camps: in Santa Fe; in Roswell near the Walker Airbase, which held about 4,800 German and Italian soldiers; and Camp Lordsburg, which housed German and Italian prisoners and more Japanese internees. The latter had "branch" camps in Hatch, Fort Bayard, Deming, Anthony and Las Cruces (from which Werner Paul Lueck escaped in 1945, not being caught again until 1954 in Mexico City), as pointed out in Roger Lanse's interesting book, World War II Prisoner of War Camps in Southwest New Mexico ("Stalag Lordsburg," June 2011). Lanse notes that there were nearly 700 POW camps or branches in the US during the war, which held a half-million prisoners over the course of the conflict.

In New Mexico, the prisoners were used for all types of work, from agriculture to clerical to construction, and were paid $3 per day, the minimum wage of the times. Prisoners also helped build the state fairgrounds in Albuquerque.

There is mention of another camp at the Portales fairgrounds where Italian prisoners were held, but there is not much information available about the accuracy of that possibility.

An interesting story that took place at Deming, a camp that was used for less than a year, was the escape of Georg Gartner, a German prisoner, who was never recaptured. Even though the war had ended, Gartner wasn't too anxious to return home after learning that his hometown was in the hands of the Russian Army. After being pressured by his American wife, in 1985 he turned himself in. He was formally "forgiven" and became a US citizen and lived until January of this year.

Lordsburg's place in history as a Japanese internment camp was sealed in July 1942, when two Japanese men, Toshio Kabata, age 58, a farmer from California afflicted with TB, and Hirota Isomua, 59, a fisherman in California who had spinal injuries and who is said to have walked with a stoop, disembarked from a train in Lordsburg. While one of the soldiers assigned to guard them went for water, the second, a PFC Clarence Burleson, shot and killed both men, whom he claimed tried to escape. Burleson was court-martialed and charge with manslaughter, but was found not guilty. Locally, he was briefed feted as a hero; an officer kept the shotgun-shell casings from the gun that killed the two men, proclaiming that Burleson deserved a medal. That did not happen.

Camp Santa Fe housed POWs and Japanese internees as well over the course of the war. It was not without its own problems, the first being when a group of armed locals went to the camp in early 1942, bent on revenge after hearing of the Bataan Death March. The camp commandant talked them out of it, noting that any action might lead to harsher treatment of American POWs by the Japanese.

In March 1945, an uprising by some of the Japanese took place, when they were protesting the transfer of three of their comrades who were leaders of an earlier protest. Some rocks were thrown at Border Patrol agents and the response was quick and harsh, as the guards used batons and tear-gas grenades to break up the melee. Four Japanese were injured and taken to hospital.

 

 

 

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