Connie Vineyard, 90, who traveled from Madison, Wis., for events in Albuquerque and Santa Fe, was the only member of the pioneering special Army reconnaissance unit from World War II able to attend.
But about 55 historians, relatives and friends of Alamo Scouts joined him at the unit’s last reunion. It included a stop Friday at the New Mexico National Guard Bataan Memorial Museum in Santa Fe.
Alamo Scouts played a key part in liberating survivors of the Bataan Death March from a prisoner-of-war camp near Cabanatuan City in the Philippines. That mission in 1945 freed 511 men, and it has an enduring connection to New Mexico. No state lost more of its native sons at Bataan than New Mexico.
Vineyard was still in training as an Alamo Scout when World War II ended later in 1945 with the surrender of Italy, Germany and Japan. Even so, he said, his bond with fellow Scouts was strong, and he had hoped to see old buddies from New Jersey and Florida at the reunion. Age, illnesses and the strain of travel prevented other Scouts from attending the final reunion.
“I’m very disappointed,” Vineyard said.
The Alamo Scouts Historical Foundation says only five of the original 138 operational Scouts and seven graduates of the unit’s training center are still alive. With their ranks thinning and costs rising, the historical foundation is discontinuing the annual reunions.
Alamo Scouts were a forerunner of special military units such as the Green Berets. Commanded by then-Lt. Gen. Walter Krueger, the Alamo Scouts existed for only two years. But they conducted at least 112 missions behind Japanese lines in World War II, according to the unit’s historical foundation.
Sworn to secrecy, the Scouts said nothing about their service for decades. Then books and a movie, The Great Raid, introduced the Scouts to the general public during the last 20 years.
Among those at the reunion was author Lance Zedric, who in 1995 published a groundbreaking book, Silent Warriors of World War II: The Alamo Scouts Behind the Japanese Lines.
Asked what stands out most about the Scouts, Zedric had a quick reply: “The quality of the men. They were not braggarts. They were true to their missions, and that meant being secretive, being accurate.”
Bruce Kittleson, son of the late Scout Galen Kittleson, also attended the reunion. His dad helped free Bataan survivors at the Cabanatuan prison camp. Galen Kittleson also served in Vietnam, where in 1970, at age 45, he took part in a failed raid to rescue prisoners of war near Hanoi.
The exploits of the Scouts and other U.S. soldiers at Cabanatuan inspired The Great Raid, released in 2005.
Zedric said he watched the movie with Galen Kittleson, and the old Scout gave a terse, direct review, announcing which parts were true and which were fabrications of Hollywood.
Bataan is a torrid peninsula west of Manila in the Philippines. The Japanese, who had attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, advanced on Corregidor Island and Bataan by springtime.
In all, about 12,000 American and 63,000 Filipino soldiers dug in to try to stop the advancing Japanese. Incredibly, more than 1,800 of the Americans at Bataan were from New Mexico, members of the 200th and 515th Coast Artillery Regiment.
The New Mexico brigade and the rest of the allied forces had little food, water or ammunition. With a massacre looming, the U.S. commander surrendered his forces at Bataan Peninsula on April 9, 1942.
After the defeat came the death march, covering about 65 miles to a Japanese compound.
About half the soldiers from New Mexico who were at Bataan died in the death march or as prisoners of war. Of the 900 who came home, state historians estimate, half died within a year or two, belated casualties of war.
Vineyard heard accounts of New Mexico’s deep connection to Bataan at the museum in Santa Fe.
His grandsons paid all his expenses for the reunion. He said he would have made the trip anyway, but their gesture was a source of pride for him, a tribute to an old unit that many only now are discovering.