[Editor's Note: This is part 5 of a series of articles on the Grant County Commission meetings July 6 and 8, 2021.]
By Mary Alice Murphy
After two presentations and county reports at the work session on Tuesday, July 6, 2021, which can be read at https://www.grantcountybeat.com/news/news-articles/66082-grant-county-commission-hears-a-presentation-on-bataan-memorial-design-070621, https://www.grantcountybeat.com/news/news-articles/66108-grant-county-commissioners-hear-proposal-for-narcotic-canine-detection-070621-part-2, https://www.grantcountybeat.com/news/news-articles/66134-grant-county-commission-hears-county-reports-at-work-session-070621-and-regular-meeting-070821-part-3 and https://www.grantcountybeat.com/news/news-articles/66135-grant-county-commission-hears-grmc-monthly-update-at-regular-meeting-070821-part-4 , the regular meeting agenda was reviewed. Before decisions were made at the regular meeting on Thursday, July 8, 2021, commissioners heard public input and elected officials' reports.
At the regular meeting, Don Turner, who has been a strong advocate for the Bataan Death March Memorial at Bataan Memorial Park, in public input, made some comments about the history of the March and what he wants the memorial to portray. He began by saying: "So many people don't know what happened on Bataan. We, the relatives and friends of the Grant County Bataan heroes want as each person enters the memorial to read their stories on the walls, to visualize themselves in our soldiers' boots."
He then launched into a detailed history, which he read.
The Grant County members of the 200th Coast Artillery shipped out in April 1941. Included in the more than 100 were 18 teenage boys, some of whom had just graduated high school and one that had just married. They were sent to the Filipino island of Luzon to defend Clark Field. They were armed with 20-year-old arms and ammunition dating from World War I. Some had never fired a weapon. On Dec. 8, 1941, the Japanese attacked Clark Field destroying most of the airplanes and vehicles. A couple of weeks later, hordes of Japanese troops invaded. The American and Filipino troops, with dwindling food supplies, although valiantly fighting, were pushed back. After about a month, they were cut to half rations, then ¼ rations. Weak with malaria and dysentery, they had to eat the cavalry horses and mules, and then they resorted to eating snakes, monkeys, insects, rodents and anything else they could get their hands on. April 9, 1942, after officially calling it a surrender, but in reality, it was a collapse, they were put in groups of about 100 each and started marching northward, in over 100-degree heat and about 100 percent humidity. It wasn't long before they were begging for water, which they usually found beside the road. If they tried to get some, they were shot or bayoneted. As the march continued, they were subjected to many atrocities, such as beating and being clubbed. Each group was followed by a "Buzzard Squad," so if a marcher fell out of the group, the squad would shoot them, bayonet them or let a tank run over them, turning them into a pile of blood, guts and bones. If and when they stopped, it was always in an open field, sitting in the boiling sun, called the "Sun Treatment." As some went berserk with thirst, they were again shot or bayoneted. After marching the 65 miles in about five days, which is about equal to walking from Deming to Lordsburg in August, they arrived at San Fernando, where about 100 were jammed like sardines into boxcars. They couldn't sit down, and there was no ventilation. The stench was unbearable. When the train stopped, the doors were opened, they got a little fresh air, and the dead were removed to be piled like cordwood. After they arrived in Capas, they had to walk another 9 miles to Camp O'Donnell, later to be known as the Camp O'Death. There they received little food and with only one spigot had to stand in line for hours to get water. They were again subjected to torture and beatings. There were stretcher bearers, who carried out the dead 24/7 to a common grave. Thirty-seven Grant County men died in the POW camps.
After a couple of months, the men were transferred to Camp Cabanatuan. After a time, the Japanese decided they needed laborers in Japan, so the men were sent to Manila Bay, where they were loaded into transport ships. They were jammed into the hold where the previous occupants were usually livestock. There was hardly room to sit, in stifling heat and waste, in the dark. When the hold hatches were opened, sometimes they lowered buckets of food or water and then the buckets were filled with waste and dumped overboard. The dead were passed out the hold and also dumped overboard. Many, like my uncle, suffocated. As these unmarked ships were headed out, the Allies assumed they carried materials, supplies or Japanese troops, so the Air Force strafed and bombed them and the Navy torpedoed them, killing about 12,000 men, 17 of whom were from Grant County, killed by friendly fire. These ships became known as the "Hell Ships."
He said these are only some of the reasons why he would like everyone to read their stories and honor their sacrifice. About half the Grant County men did not come home Those who did come home after nearly five years suffered from "battle fatigue," what is now called PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). As a result, many resorted to alcohol and even suicide.
"Nowhere else would there be a memorial like this one to explain and honor these men and what they had to endure," Turner said. "So, when the visitors leave, they will have a better idea of what went on at Bataan and the horrors the soldiers had to endure."
At the work session, County Manager Charlene Webb said about the agenda item to approve the Bataan Memorial Design, "we're pushing it to be done by April 10, 2022, to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the Death March. Priscilla (Shoup, planning and community development department director) and Mark (Richard, architect) have had a number of meetings with Mr. Turner. They tried to incorporate as many of his ideas that he was passionate about as possible. I was sad to see his disappointment. We've tried really hard to incorporate his ideas. In my discussions, it seems he is upset that we don't have all the walls and all the pictures that he wants. We put the things he wanted on the walls into the boxcar building, and the items about the Hell ships in concrete. The walls in the boxcar will protect the pictures and stories. I agree that it looks nothing like what he designed, but we have to have ramps and we have to meet code and inspections. We thought we had grasped the things he wanted."
District 1 Commissioner and Chair Chris Ponce noted that, as commissioners, they have to look at costs. "Is this design more feasible cost-wise?"
Webb confirmed that it was, plus the pictures that Turner wanted on outdoor walls would be better protected in the boxcar structure, where the pictures would not be weathered by the sun and winter weather. "Xeriscape would minimize maintenance."
Ponce asked how they would minimize vandalism. "We may have to open only at certain hours."
Webb said that a QR code in the boxcar structure would connect people to someone telling the stories. "We want it to be a destination. Having a website will make it more attractive, too. Visitors can get more information there."
District 3 Commissioner Alicia Edwards commented that Mr. Turner and his partners are clearly passionate about the project. "It's really hard to change, but if you and your staff have tried to incorporate his ideas, that's good. One thing I'm struck by is the three-dimensionality of the design. The rust, for instance, that will look like blood and be symbolic of the blood that was shed. That will have an emotional impact. This accomplishes a lot of the designs that the UNM School of Architecture came up with for a lot less money. This design incorporates the best of them. We want people to be powerfully impacted by the design. I think Mark's design will have that impact on people. We want it to be a destination. I think it's different from what Mr. Turner wants—to portray the suffering and remembering of the heroes. We need to educate people about Bataan, so they don't forget it. I think this offers the best of these efforts."
District 2 Commissioner Javier "Harvey" Salas said he knows the Vietnam Memorial at Angel Fire is a destination. "And I think the QR code idea is great."
Webb noted that the county received a capital outlay appropriation to start the project. "Statute says that lodgers' tax revenue has to be spent within two years, and we can complete the project with the capital outlay and lodgers' tax."
Salas noted that enhancements and expansions could come later. "Absolutely," Webb replied.
District 4 Commissioner Billy Billings said he appreciated the work that Webb and Shoup had done with Turner and Richard. "No one got the exact way they wanted it, but I appreciate the incorporation of technology. That can't be vandalized. I disagree that the memorial wall as it is can last, but if the architect thinks it can, then that's great."
At the regular meeting, when the item came up for approval, Billings said he believed the only way to get the memorial completed by the anniversary was to approve it that day. "I don't know the solution, but I would like to see Mr. Turner and his group be happier. Mr. Turner, what is the most specific thing you want to address?"
Turner said the commissioners had seen his design and the architect's design. "We don't like a lot of it. A concrete shell with open doors for the boxcar doesn't represent it well so that people can visualize the horror they went through. Six sets of brothers were in the March, only one set came back. The other five lost a brother. I personally prefer to read the stories. Thirty-five didn't come home; 37 did. I wanted to have their storied etched on metal."
Billings said he didn't see that the ideas were that far apart.
Turner said he and his group are willing to meet with Richard again. "Nothing we drew is what he drew."
Ponce said he understood, but "we have 5.3 months to get this constructed, and we need to start today."
Salas said he believes that Turner and his group want more visuals. "When I went to the Holocaust Museum, it was very moving. Can we keep the current design and enhance it in the future? I know we're under financial constraints, as well as time constraints. Maybe in a future area, we can add the plaques that Mr. Turner's group wants. The group is made up of families of those who were in the March. Most people don't even know about the boxcars and the Hellships."
Turner said he has been approached by people offering donations for the effort. "The general of the 200th Coast Artillery from Santa Fe has been invited to come to the anniversary ceremony. I can start getting donations and meeting with Mr. Richard."
Ponce said his greatest fear is not having enough to pay for the project and get it done on time.
Edwards said the Memorial serves as a remembrance and for people to learn from history, so it doesn't happen again. "The second piece is that everyone will have a different experience at the site. There are a lot of different ways to memorialize and remember the Hell ships, for example. Reading about it and/or interacting with the concrete representation offers a lot of room to make it work. I think this design is powerful, and I believe it will help people understand what these men went through. I think we can continue to meet with Mr. Turner and Mark Richard."
Billings said he thought about phasing it from the beginning. "I would like to see a room where people can read the stories on the walls, and I think the QR code idea is phenomenal."
Edwards said she believes that the compactness of the boxcar will be visualized easily. "With the QR code, you have the auditory way to hear these people's stories."
Salas said: "I say we get something done, which can be enhanced. There are so many parts of the story, and maybe we can expand to other stories. Angel Fire draws people there. This will bring people here."
The commissioners approved the plans.
The next article will get into the review of the agenda and actions taken at the regular meeting.