Inside the Capitol

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

60th Anniversary of WWII Will Be Last Big One

SANTA FE Next year marks the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II. It will be marked by observances similar to those for the 50th anniversary a decade ago.
This is expected to be the last of the big celebrations because the remaining veterans who fought in that war are now well into their 80s.
As a tribute to the brave men of the New Mexico National Guard, who fired the first shots of the war and became the most decorated unit during World War II, Inside the Capitol will follow those men through their four-year ordeal on at least a monthly basis throughout the coming year.
Much of the material in this series will come from books written in the early 1990s: “Beyond Courage,” by Dorothy Cave of Roswell, and “It Tolled for New Mexico,” by Eva Jane Matson of Las Cruces. Maybe these columns will encourage you to run out and buy copies.
We begin this month with a look at the years leading up to activation of the New Mexico National Guard, early in 1941, and its training at Fort Bliss, Texas.
The New Mexico Guard holds the distinction of being the oldest continuous militia in the United States, dating back to the Spanish colonists of 1598. During the Civil War, it fought as the First New Mexico Cavalry under Kit Carson.
In 1898, the Territorial Militia again was federalized as the Second Squadron of the First U. S. Volunteer Cavalry, better known as Roosevelt’s Rough Riders. When some of their troops and most of their horses didn’t arrive for the assault on Kettle Hill, they fought on as infantry to capture the hill.
Forty years later the New Mexico National Guard still was a proud cavalry unit, the 111th. But times were changing. Germany and Japan both were exhibiting expansionistic tendencies. In 1939, Japanese bombs fell on American missions in China and the U.S. fleet moved into the Pacific.
The War Department announced that the 111th Cavalry must convert to another mission. Horses would not be used in the next war. New Mexico was given the choice between field artillery and antiaircraft coast artillery. For some reason, the desert rats chose coast artillery.
In April 1940, the New Mexico National Guard became the 200th Coast Artillery. That summer’s encampment at Camp Luna was sent a few 3-inch guns, but only for demonstration. Priority for weapons and ammunition went to our European allies. Before the end of the year, it was announced that the 200th would be federalized.
The swearing-in was held on January 6, 1941. The troops shipped out on January 15 to Fort Bliss in El Paso. The base hadn’t been expanded yet to accommodate the incoming Guard units so the troops slept in tents. Simulated guns were fashioned from boxes and broomsticks, using rocks for ammunition. It was an omen of what was to come.
The few units that did have equipment demonstrated amazing ability to accomplish their tasks by braking book rules and taking shortcuts. Unlike the regular Army, the men of the 200th were assigned tasks consistent with their backgrounds. And since everyone knew each other, there were few slackers.
Although it wasn’t widely publicized, U.S. officials had adopted a “Get Hitler First” strategy. Japan and the Pacific could wait. But as far as our troops were told, guns and ammunition were on the way and any danger from Japan was well in the future, if at all.
But soon Japan was flooding into southern China, almost entirely surrounding the Philippines, the major U.S. territory in the South Pacific. U.S. officials knew that if Japan took the Philippines, we’d have very little foothold to regain the Pacific. So Gen. MacArthur was dispatched to Manila as commander of the Asiatic Fleet to begin the defense and reinforcement of the Philippines.
Later this month, shipping out and setting up in the Philippines.


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