Inside the Capitol

Thursday, September 02, 2004

Bataan Prisoners' Returned to SFe's Bruns Hospital

SANTA FE – For New Mexico’s survivors of the Bataan Death March, the end of over three years in prison camps didn’t come with the formal surrender of the Japanese on September 2, 1945.
It required many weeks for the prison camps to be identified, food and medical supplies to be dropped and transportation to be arranged.
Since before the A-bombs fell in early August, it was becoming obvious to members of the New Mexico National Guard that we were winning the war. Japanese guards were getting edgy, bombs were falling and U.S. Navy ships were shelling known factory sites.
The Japanese captors told our men that as soon as Americans landed, all prisoners would die. They had our men dig out large areas, where they were told they would be herded, shot an buried. Lt. Tom Foy, who became a longtime state lawmaker, reported that his camp was told it would be flooded with oil that ran the factories and then it would be set on fire.
But the big bombs changed many plans. Confusion reigned. As top Japanese officials fought over whether to surrender or fight on, orders were not getting out to the field. American special services teams were parachuted into prison camp areas to provide our men with directions about what to do to save themselves.
Navy reconnaissance planes scouted out prison camps. Prisoners made POW signs out of anything they could find. Because the inadequate food supplies provided by the Japanese had reduced to nothing, planes dropped food to the camps in huge containers and 55-gallon drums.
The cargo was too heavy for the parachutes, making the drops almost as dangerous as bombing raids. Prisoners ran into their barracks, but a 55-gallon drum of fruit cocktail would crash right through, injuring many. Sgt. Nick Chintis, who later was a lobbyist for Western New Mexico University, noted the irony of a man who had starved for three years being wiped out by a can of peaches.
Special services leaders instructed our men to stay put until their liberators arrived. But for many, it was too big a temptation to go foraging for food, medicine, strong drink or a quicker way home.
For many others, a slow boat back home was just what they wanted. They were emaciated. Many wanted the time to fatten up and recover from diseases and injuries before facing their friends and loved ones. And some were apprehensive about reconnecting with loved ones. Not all wives and sweethearts had waited.
After four years in isolation, it was a strange new world to which they returned. New customs, innovations and slang bewildered them. And even the familiar seemed new. They had to reacquaint themselves with their country and with their friends and families who could never understand.
After initial processing, the returning prisoners were sent to military hospitals nearest their homes. Most New Mexicans went to Bruns General Hospital in Santa Fe. The doctors gave most of them no more than 10 years to live and said they could never father children. Both prognoses proved false for most, but they accepted them at the time and vowed to enjoy life as long as they had it.
Santa Fe treated them well. Small, offbeat and sympathetic, it was an ideal place to recover. The community let them get away with anything. When they went into town and got too drunk, the police would give them rides back to the hospital.
Two men even stole a police car to go fishing. They finally called in to the chief and told him they were in Pecos. He just replied, “Please don’t wreck it and bring it back when you’re through.”
When they were ready to return to their communities, they received huge homecoming celebrations, even if they weren’t quite ready.
Next year will mark the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II. Only a few Bataan survivors remain, but we will honor them throughout the year on significant days. If you want to get a jump on me, get a copy of Dorothy Cave’s book “Beyond Courage.” You’ll love it.


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