As Bataan survivors die, family and historians face challenge of preserving their stories
By ROBERT NOTT | The Santa Fe New Mexican | Published: February 27, 2020
(Tribune News Service) — One of the last surviving veterans of the infamous Bataan Death March has died, and his passing is a reminder that time makes no allowances — not even for one of the most important moments in recent history.
Santiago Lucero, among the New Mexico soldiers to survive the Death March in the early days of World War II, died at his Albuquerque home Feb. 18, his son Jimmy Lucero said.
Lucero was 99.
The number of Death March survivors from New Mexico is down to just five in the state and eight nationwide, according to the state Department of Veterans Services. Those ranks have thinned to nearly nothing in the 78 years since they took part in the first major land campaign in the Pacific following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941.
Those who keep track of history worry that with each Bataan veteran who dies, a bit of New Mexico history goes with them.
“As these men pass away, their descendants are supposed to step forward and somehow pick up those voices,” said Christopher Schurtz, a history teacher at El Paso Community College whose grandfather, Paul Schurtz, took part in the Bataan conflict.
“There will be a diluted version of their story, where their voices will be lost,” he said. “We are going to lose the immediacy of these men. The descendants cannot fill those shoes, in my opinion. So I am really concerned about this.”
Rob Martinez, New Mexico’s state historian, doesn’t see it quite that way, noting it’s inevitable the Death March survivors would someday die.
“I don’t think we’re going to forget their stories or lose their history, but I do hope that the firsthand experiences of those men [have] been recorded with recording equipment and writing,” he said. “That generation has grandchildren by now, and it is incumbent upon them to tell their stories.”
But, he said, the best way to look at such historical events is still “through the eyes of those who experienced it,” and time works against such an approach as those people die.
Jimmy Lucero said the history of those men and their experiences will live on “as long as people like us keep telling them. They will keep going and going.”
That is assuming those veterans wanted to share their stories. Some did, some didn’t. Santiago Lucero’s grandson Levi Lucero said though he tried to draw his grandfather out about his war experiences, “He didn’t give me too much detail. My guess is, being a captive during much of the war, he didn’t want to relive the memories of that time.”
But over time, Santiago Lucero would tell his sons some of what he experienced.
Some 1,800 New Mexican soldiers fought in the Battle of Bataan, which started in early January 1942 and ended on April 9 of that year when American military commanders finally surrendered.
The “Battling Bastards of Bataan,” as they became known, hold a firm place in New Mexico lore — much like the Navajo Code Talkers, who used their Native language to flummox the enemy during World War II, and the scientists who developed the atomic bomb in the secret city of Los Alamos, historians say.
“Bataan defines us in a major way,” Martinez said. “It shows us a place like New Mexico — an assumed backwater at the time — could be a major contributor to world events.
“New Mexicans were among the first U.S. military forces to fire upon the Japanese.”
Santiago Lucero was one of those men. A native of Albuquerque who gradated from Albuquerque High School, he joined the National Guard in May 1941, seven months before that attack on Pearl Harbor drew America into World War II.
“I guess he wanted to go,” Jimmy Lucero said of his dad. “He was proud to be a soldier.”
Like so many soldiers who ended up in the 200th Coast Artillery regiment — which later split up into both the 200th and 515th — Lucero, who served as both a truck driver and telephone operator, was stationed on the Bataan peninsula in the Philippines. There, he and the other defenders found themselves equipped with limited, outdated or malfunctioning weapons and equipment when the Japanese invasion began.
The American and Filipino defenders fought a desperate, against-all-odds battle for some three months. Some say their holdout made a difference in the eventual victory over the Japanese because it allowed the U.S. much-needed time to regroup in the Pacific Theater.
Schurtz said he’s not sure every historian sees it that way, as the Japanese had already gained a strong foothold in most of the Asian Pacific, but the Bataan battle remains “incredible” in his view.
“Here is this scrappy National Guard unit from New Mexico taking on one of the most formidable military forces of the time in the Japanese Army with weaponry that sometimes didn’t function, dwindling supplies and cut off from any support,” he said. “There were no reinforcements on the horizon, no force coming to save them, and yet they continued to fight until they were surrendered.
“The men did not surrender, they were surrendered, and that’s an important distinction,” Schurtz continued. “Now they are known as prisoners of war, but for several months they fought a tremendous battle — though it was a defensive battle.”
Once American forces surrendered, the captives — as many as 65,000 Filipinos and 12,000 Americans — were forced to march some 65 miles in six days in what has become known as the Bataan Death March. Malaria, combat wounds, dehydration, physical abuse and death at the hands of their Japanese captors wore them down — or out.
Historians say some 10,000 Filipinos and Americans died along the way.
Those who survived, like Santiago Lucero, landed in prisoner-of-war camps, where they once again were enveloped in violence and death.
Over time, Santiago Lucero would tell his sons some of what he endured, including daily beatings at the hands of Japanese guards. He recalled fellow soldiers, suffering from malaria, who were left to die by Japanese soldiers.
Even seemingly celebratory events such as holidays drew dark clouds behind prison walls. One year, the captives caught a duck, which they planned to cook for a holiday feast. But the Japanese ate it instead, Lucero told his sons.
The prisoners had to make do with eating monkeys they caught in the jungle.
“You’d eat any part of a monkey you could to survive,” Jimmy Lucero said.
After the war with Japan ended in September 1945, Santiago Lucero left the service in May 1946 as a corporal. He then worked for the post office in downtown Albuquerque, Jimmy Lucero said, until he was deemed 100 percent disabled because of his war service.
Jimmy Lucero said his father was one of those veterans who did his best to show up, usually in his uniform, at every commemoration service regarding Bataan. Santa Fe will host one such celebration again this year on April 9.
Santiago Lucero will be buried in his military uniform, his son said.
“He lived a long life — 99 years,” Jimmy Lucero said. “He was ready to go home. Now he’s off on his next journey, and wherever that journey takes him will be good.”
Schurtz and Martinez both said that when such men die off, the world loses an immediacy and intimacy with historical events that is challenging to re-create.
“What we really lose is that intimate connection with history that helps us remember not just what they went through but how to not repeat the mistakes that led us there,” Martinez said.