Inside the Capitol

Friday, July 30, 2004

Proud History of NM Guard

SANTA FE – A big “welcome home” to the 720th Transportation Company, New Mexico’s longest-serving guardsmen in Iraq. The trucking outfit, based in Las Vegas, N.M., returns home after 17 months of active duty.
The guardsmen were scheduled to return in April after a year in Iraq, but as with so many other National Guard units, their stay was extended just as they were preparing to leave. Transportation duty usually isn’t the most hazardous job in the military, but in this war, it ranked right up at the top, with convoys being a favorite target of roadside bombers and kidnappers.
New Mexico’s National Guard has a proud history of service to our country, dating all the way back to Spanish, Mexican and territorial militias, some of which helped repel invasions from our not-always-so-friendly Texas neighbors.
The New Mexico Guard’s most valiant contribution to the defense of our nation came during the first months of World War II. When the Japanese attacked simultaneously at Pearl Harbor and the Philippines, the 200th Coast Artillery, composed of 1,800 New Mexico National Guardsmen from throughout the state, was waiting for them.
Our guys had been in the Philippines since summer, helping protect what then was a vital U.S. territory because our leaders figured something was up. Japan hit harder than anyone had suspected and soon, Gen. McArthur was wading off the shore promising “I shall return.”
The only problem was, he didn’t. The troops enroute to reinforce our guys were diverted to Australia – the final destination of the Japanese advance. Losing it would give Japan complete control of the Pacific and there would be little we could do to reclaim it.
For four months, the 200th was told that help was on the way, when in reality, the Philippines already had been written off. The New Mexicans’ valor and tenacity caused a four-month delay in Tokyo’s war strategy. It was a delay that granted the Allies precious time to regroup and reinforce their Pacific forces to stop Japan’s southward thrust.
In April 9, 1942, the Philippines were surrendered. The 200th Coast Artillery was credited with being the first unit in the Philippines to fire on the enemy and the last to lay down their arms. As every unit in the area retreated onto the Bataan Peninsula, they were covered by the New Mexico National Guard.
The 200th Coast Artillery formed the only line through which U.S. officers could carry our surrender flag. The New Mexicans didn’t want to surrender. They were ready to fight to the end. They didn’t surrender; they were surrendered. That still is a very important distinction to the survivors.
In a short four months, the brave New Mexicans had became the most decorated unit in World War II. And this was a National Guard unit, not regular Army. The word spread fast and, it is said, no soldier in the Pacific Theater got away with running down a Guard unit without being told the story of the New Mexico National Guard.
I have a couple of theories about why the New Mexico guardsmen stood out. First, as a guard unit, they were friends and neighbors, not an assortment of draftees from throughout the nation. They knew each other and they stuck together. Who would not want to exhibit anything but uncommon valor around the people with whom he would be returning home?
After they were captured, a three-and-a-half-year ordeal began that included the Bataan Death March, prison camps, hell ships to Japan, work camps and inhuman conditions. A larger percentage of New Mexicans survived those conditions than men in other units from either the National Guard or regular Army. The reason was that our guys already were friends and they forged a buddy system that helped those in need.
And beyond that, New Mexico still had a frontier ethic of life, in which a person’s deeds were more important than who they were.
New Mexico has a National Guard tradition that should make us all very proud.


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