By Marlena Hartz: Freedom Newspapers
CANNON AIR FORCE BASE — With golden-tipped shovels in their hands, six survivors of the Bataan Death March stood at the Cannon Air Force Base POW/MIA Park on Friday.
The men, their faces weathered, some sporting caps and cowboy hats, dug into the Earth, breaking ground for a new granite memorial to be placed there in December.
The memorial will honor the sacrifices made by members of the 27th Fighter Wing and the 200th and 515th Coastal Artillery Battalions.
The six men — Lee Roach, Louis Herring, M.C. Waltmon, Jack Aldrich, Irvin Butler, and Buren Johnston — represent survivors of an atrocity of war, which took place in 1942. The Bataan Death March involved the forcible transfer, by foot, of more than 74,000 Filipino and U.S. prisoners of war. Japanese soldiers forced their prisoners — already malnourished and ill when they were captured — to walk about 65 miles.
More than 7,000 of the prisoners died on the march. Thousands more died in the camps.
Officials have estimated that fewer than 70 march survivors with New Mexico ties are alive today.
“These six men are something else — because of what they did, what they have given our country, and because they’d do it all over again,” said Rick Robertson, a retired chief petty officer who runs Cannon’s Retired Activities Program.
Only 18 days after New Mexico’s 27th Fighter Wing arrived to defend the Philippines, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. The fighter wing — left without supplemental aircraft — joined ground forces, merging with New Mexico’s National Guard, and created a new entity, the 515th born of its parent unit, the 200th. The relationship the two separate units formed still exists today, said Col. John Posner, who spoke at Friday’s ceremony.
A mixed crowd of military personnel, veterans, and family members, as well as scattered community members, gathered Friday afternoon to attend the groundbreaking ceremony for the memorial at Cannon. Upon completion of comments from Posner, a serpentine line formed inside the Cannon chapel as the six veterans sat in chairs and attendees waited for the chance to greet them.
Roach, a member of the 27th Fighter Wing, was among those seated. In jeans and an oxford shirt, he reminisced about the death march — which led from the tip of the Philippian peninsula past a mountain range to the site where Roach spent three years as a prisoner of war.
“You know, the tropical heat over there is intense. On the march, what made it so bad, was we didn’t have any food or water. And we would work months in the heat without a day off. A lot of people died,” said Roach, who retired from the military after returning to the states in 1943 to work for the railroad.
“We really appreciate the sacrifice (of these men),” said Capt. Dave Francis, co-chair of the Cannon Memorial Committee, “and hope we will do them justice with this small token of appreciation.”
The Cannon Memorial Committee and the Retired Activities Program have raised $13,650 toward a memorial for Bataan Death March survivors. They are considering two monuments, depending on contributions. The smaller monument would cost about $20,000, the larger about $40,000, officials said.
For information, or to make a donation, contact Rick Robertson at 784-4679.