Inside the Capitol

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

60th Anniversary Tribute to NM Guard

SANTA FE – The 60th anniversary of victory in World War II will be the last of the big celebrations. Few of the veterans of that war are still with us.
As a tribute to the brave men of the New Mexico National Guard, who fired the first shots of the war and became its most decorated unit, we will follow them through their four-year ordeal with frequent columns throughout the coming year.
This is the second in the series. Early this month, we looked at the years leading up to activation of our Guard in early 1941, as the 200th Coast Artillery.
On Jan. 15, 1941, some 1,800 troops were shipped out to Fort Bliss, Texas for training. Accommodations were Spartan. Supplies and equipment were almost non-existent. The nation was not ready for war and what few resources we had were being sent to Europe to “get Hitler first.”
By summer, Japanese troops were flooding into southern China, almost entirely surrounding the Philippines, the major U.S. territory in the South Pacific. U.S. officials know that if Japan took the Philippines, we’d have very little foothold to regain the Pacific. So the defense of the Philippines was begun under Gen. Douglas MacArthur.
In August, military officials announced that they had toured the nation seeking the country’s best anti-aircraft regiment. Somewhat amazingly, they gave their highest rating to a recently-activated National Guard unit from New Mexico, which still had not been completely supplied with guns and ammunition.
Admittedly, however, the spirit and resourcefulness of that cohesive unit was something the Army wasn’t accustomed to seeing. The men from the deserts and mountains of New Mexico had already demonstrated an amazing ability to accomplish their tasks by breaking book rules and taking shortcuts.
And so, our Guard won the right to “an overseas assignment of great importance.” By Aug. 30, they were shipping out from Angel Island, off San Francisco, to the Philippines. They were on the first American troopship to be convoyed in peacetime in Far Eastern waters.
Unloading the cargo holds of their ship on Luzon, the New Mexicans realized that their equipment was in no better shape than what they had been supplied at Fort Bliss. It was defective, outmoded and corroded. In fact some of it they had already rejected as unusable back home.
Not only were our troops not being supplied with the tools needed to accomplish their mission, U.S. officials were ignoring pleas from a new, moderate Japanese premier, looking for peace. Prince Fumimaro Konoye sought desperately to meet with President Roosevelt personally, but the president continually rebuffed him. On Oct. 16, Konoye’s government fell to War Minister Hideki Tojo, who now led the nation.
Since July, Tojo had been planning simultaneous surprise attacks throughout the Pacific to bring a quick victory over the United States and its Allies. Those plans moved into high gear once Tojo ruled the nation. Early in November, Japanese forces began sailing toward their assigned launching points.
Meanwhile, in Washington, Dwight Eisenhower, a favorite of President Franklin Roosevelt, designed a battle plan for the Philippines. It called for setting up a defensive line and holding it until Europe could be won. FDR liked it and sent Eisenhower to Europe, leaving Ike’s former boss, Gen. MacArthur, to defend the Pacific with nothing but promises that help would come.
The 200th Coast Artillery dug in to defend Clark Field on the island of Luzon, with one-fifth of the men and guns needed. The additional units and equipment never materialized.
Tensions grew. American reconnaissance planes flew daily to observe the massive Japanese buildup off Formosa. On Nov. 23, they went on full alert.
But troop morale remained high. As far as they knew, they were well prepared. The Japanese, they thought, didn’t stand a chance.
The story will continue on Dec. 8.


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