By Mary Alice Murphy
At the July 6, 2021, work session, Grant County commissioners heard and discussed the Bataan Memorial redesign.
Preceding the presentation was public input. Grant County resident Don Turner has been vocal and passionate about saving the memorial and redoing it. He had presented a design and worked with the architect and the county on his vision of the memorial. During public input, he seemed distressed: "Thanks for hearing us out. We are a few here today. Our friends and relatives wanted to be here to offer their support but were unable to be here. When we submitted our plans, I assumed that you had approved them. I understood the next thing was to get them signed off by an engineer or architect. Little did we know that out of the plans we submitted there would be so many drastic changes that nothing would remain of them. It is very disappointing to say the least. Most important there are no walls to honor our veterans and their stories, after they sacrificed four years of their lives on the line for our country. More than half of them didn't come home. The one thing we think is a good idea is the [inaudible]."
Mark Richard, architect, said he was contracted by the county to be involved in the design for the improvements to the Bataan Memorial. He also presented the history leading up to the Bataan Death March, which is memorialized at the Bataan Memorial Park. He said the Americans set up defense outposts in the Philippines prior to World War II to protect its main Pacific possession. "Within hours of the Pearl Harbor attack, the Japanese began to attack the Philippines, airbases, shipyards and harbors. The capital of the Philippines sits on Manila Bay, one of the best deep-water ports in the Pacific. It was for the Japanese the best re-supply point for their planned conquest of the southern Pacific. After the initial attack, 43,000 men of the Imperial Japanese 14th Army went ashore on Dec. 22, 1941. Gen. Douglas McArthur, commander of the Pacific forces, ordered the troops to retreat to the Bataan area until reinforcements arrived. However, the attack on Pearl Harbor interrupted the flow of men and supplies and left the troops on their own. The troops in Bataan resisted the Japanese from December to April 1942. On April 3, a Japanese flotilla brought a new surge of attacks. On April 9, thousands of troops, of which most were Filipino [some sources say 60,000-80,000 prisoners of war] and more than a third were wounded or sick, surrendered to the Japanese. Surrounded by the Japanese, the men were forced to walk 65 miles in seven days in tropical heat, with temperatures over 100 degrees and no food, no water and little rest. Thousands would die. The Japanese followed the code that surrender was shameful and death was preferable."
"Prisoners started out from Mariveles on April 10 and marched north to the San Fernando railhead, where prisoners were stuffed into sweltering boxcars for the 25-mile trip to Capas. At least 100 prisoners were pushed into each boxcar.," he continued. "From Capas, they were forced to walk the 9 miles to Camp O'Donnell. In May, the Japanese started loading prisoners onto ships to take them to Japan to meet the labor shortage. In the Hellships, the prisoners barely had room to stand or breathe. Because the ships were unmarked, they were susceptible to Allied fire. Unfortunately, five ships were sunk by the American Navy and about 10,000 prisoners lost their lives at sea. The prisoners were held in Japan to labor for the Japanese. On Aug. 9, 1945, some prisoners witnessed the mushroom cloud from the atomic bomb attack on Nagasaki. Following the Japanese surrender, the prisoners would receive aid from drops of food and medicines, until they could be returned to the U.S. on hospital ships. The Death March claimed as many as 500 Americans and 5,000 Filipinos. In Camp O'Donnell, some 15,000 Filipino and some 1500 Americans died of starvation and disease. Out of 22,000 American troops, which included soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines captured on the Bataan Peninsula, only about 15,000 returned home. The Death March is symbolic of the evils of war. About 1,800 New Mexicans of the 200th Coast Artillery were sent to the Philippines. The siege of Bataan was the first battle many of the Americans were in and was one of the most humiliating defeats in our military history."
He said he wanted to talk about the existing site, the mural wall, which the MRAC (Mimbres Region Arts Council) Youth Mural Project painted in about 2010. He noted the differential in elevation of more than 30 inches between the platform and the parking lot. It requires a barrier, and the site has no handicapped accessibility. "We had to address that in the plans. The mural wall seems to be in good shape, with some minor repairs needed. There is an irrigation system that doesn't seem to be functioning. There are several juniper trees and an Afghan pine on the site and a perimeter walkway. We need handicapped access. As part of the ongoing handicapped parking near the site, it makes sense to put about a 50-foot-long ramp from parking to the memorial. We have come up with the concept of a silhouette wall to portray the soldiers in the death march along the ramp. We plan a symbolic concrete structure of a boxcar to represent the boxcars and to preserve and exhibit items such as photos and stories, where they would be protected from sun and weather. The boxcar structure would have two display walls inside and two outside. At this point, we talked about putting inside the boxcar structure the rosters of those who died and survived, as well as a photo of the local group that was taken at Fort Bliss before they went overseas. We have also proposed a QR code in the structure that would take visitors to a website, such as at the Silver City Museum. It would take visitors to audio tapes, which could be updated by the museum. Another element would represent the Hellships. We plan a xeriscape, an ocean of sand, with perhaps an imprint of a ship in concrete. We could embed components such as the explosions of the ships, which would be iron, so as it rusts it would represent the blood spilt in the march and the hellships and would stain the surfaces. I've been in contact with director of the mural project, Diana Ingalls Leyba, to maybe do a mosaic of one of the hellships—three are indicated in this plan and to redo the wall. We propose a simple concrete slab for seating under the trees for shade. The preliminary budget is $150,000 for construction, including a 10 percent contingency. With a tight timeline, we have the project scheduled to be completed a month before the 80th anniversary of the Death March in April 10, 2022."
District 4 Commissioner Billy Billings, who attended by telephone, asked how "we can get the best of the two plans. I would like to meet with Mr. Turner and get the specifics of his objections."
District 5 Commissioner Harry Browne, who also attended by telephone, said he was curious to know if Richard had met with Turner.
"Yes, we met and that was where a lot of the ideas were generated," Richard replied.
District 3 Commissioner Alicia Edwards said one of the big parts of Mr. Turner's design was to incorporate photos. "Am I to presume what you are planning to do that with the concrete boxcar?"
"Yes, Donnie has a black and white photo," Richard said. "The issue is the photo is about this big (he spread his hands) and we're looking at making it this big (spreading his hands much wider). The issue is if you enlarge it that much the quality goes down. I have Laura Howell looking at that to see how we can enhance it. The painting that's there on the wall is of that photo, but it's not very crisp. Karen Carr, a nationally known muralist, was involved in the painting of the wall. I talked to her about it, and she said to enhance the 70-some faces in that image would take two years. So, we're looking at what we can do to extend that process."
Edwards said other photos could be inside the boxcar.
Richard agreed. "I've talked to some local folks and photos could be printed on a laminated aluminum panel with a heavy plastic sheet over it to protect it from vandalism. The plastic could be replaced."
District 2 Commissioner Javier "Harvey" Salas asked about the plans for the existing wall.
Richard said Turner wanted to tear it down, but since it was done by youths from Cobre Schools created it, and it's still in good shape, "I think tearing it down would open a can of worms. So, the idea is keeping it. Don suggested putting a canopy over it, but aesthetically I think that would be a mistake. That's when we came up with the idea of the boxcar."
Edwards asked if the existing wall would be covered with Plexiglas or the like. Richard said it has been there for almost 12 years and structurally it's fine. "We'll just leave it there."
Salas said he remembered there were some cracks in the wall. Richard said he had been there the day before and there really aren't any major cracks.
Richard noted from beginning to completion the project would take about 160 days.
District 1 Commissioner and Chair Chris Ponce said that was a bit over 5 months. "We will discuss it more when we get to the item on the agenda."
The next article will cover a presentation by Undersheriff Jess Watkins and Marty Madden of Xcelsior K-9 Police Dog Training to discuss the potential of the Grant County Sheriff's Office getting a police dog.