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Local Bataan historian recalls events from 77 years ago

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“Some small communities (in New Mexico) lost an entire generation of men,” says Kate Ediger about soldiers who fought in the Philippines and suffered through the Bataan Death March of World War II. Ediger, who gave a talk Friday at a Sertoma Club meeting, has devoted a great deal of her time since 2009 to learning the history of Bataan and tracking U.S. survivors. (Lisa Dunlap Photo)

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There are about 21 men from Chaves County who fought and died in the Philippines during World War II, a tragic fact that one local woman hopes people here will remember.

Referring to a poem written by one of the U.S soldiers in the Philippine Islands that described the troops as forsaken and forgotten, Kate Ediger told Roswell Sertoma Club members Friday afternoon that she is doing all she can to bring the men’s stories to remembrance.

The events of the Philippines are a “tragedy and a triumph over evil,” she said, “that I hope you will share with others.”

Ediger was the luncheon speaker for the group’s meeting, held 77 years after Japanese attacked the Philippine Islands, just hours after Japanese forces had bombed Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.

Ediger became interested in this chapter of U.S. and county history after participating in 2009 in the Bataan Memorial Death March, a 26.2-mile walk through the desert held in March each year since 1989 at the White Sands Missile Range to honor soldiers of the Philippines forced to walk what became known as the Bataan Death March. The New Mexico Military Institute regularly takes teams and individuals to the memorial march, which in the past has included WWII and Bataan survivors.

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Drawing from history books and the stories of survivors and their descendants, Ediger talked of how Filipino troops and U.S. troops, many belonging to the 200th anti-artillery Army unit that originated from New Mexico, fought the Japanese after they landed on the island on Dec. 10, 1941.

The Japanese expected to control the island in two weeks, Ediger said, but the U.S. forces, although having outdated WWI or National Guard equipment and few rations or supplies, managed to fight for four months.

“This four-month difference is what kept Australia from falling to the Japanese,” she said.

The U.S. troops had expected to be reinforced and resupplied, but unbeknownst to them, U.S. war commanders had decided to focus first on Europe and the fight against Adolph Hitler. Feeling abandoned, Ediger said, the men nevertheless fought on, reducing their rations until they ran out and then eating the island creatures, including monkeys and lizards, to survive.

Near starvation, almost out of ammunition and many dealing with severe illnesses, the U.S. and Filipino troops surrendered on April 9, 1942, believing that the Japanese would adhere to the Geneva Convention codes about ethical treatment of prisoners of war.

Instead, the men were forced to endure the 66-mile march to a prison camp with no food and little water and with many tortured or killed for no reason. Treatment at the Philippine camps was as bad, and soldiers healthy enough to be transported to Japan by “hell ships” for forced labor often died en route or soon thereafter. Enslaved workers became blind by being forced to weld without safety goggles or had broken bones from being made to carry heavy loads. Many survivors were permanently disabled.

Of the 22,000 U.S. men who were captured on the Philippines, only about 15,000 survived the war, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, a 30 percent death rate. By comparison, U.S. troops captured by Germans or other Axis forces had only a 3 percent death rate.

“New Mexicans had each other to lean on, and that was a huge advantage for them,” she said. “Despite that advantage, though, New Mexico lost more of its men, per capita, than any other state. Some small communities lost an entire generation of men.”

Of about 1,800 New Mexicans who fought in the Philippines, only about half came home. And of those who returned, only about half survived another year, Ediger said.

Now involved with several Bataan-related groups, Ediger said she has worked to learn as much as possible about the history of the event and about the survivors. Her major goal has been to track survivors, which now number 48.

She also keeps in contact with some of the Bataan descendants, including Paul Ragsdale of Roswell, who attended the Sertoma meeting. An owner of Pecos Flavors Winery, Ragsdale is the son of Cpl. Luther Ragsdale, who survived the march and the Osaka prison camp.

Ediger also urges locals to recognize the Bataan soldiers. After the meeting, she talked about how Eddy County has several memorials dedicated to Bataan troops and that she would like to see some in Chaves County.

Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 311, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.