Oldest Bataan Death March survivor passes away

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New Mexico's oldest survivor of the infamous Bataan Death March of World War II was laid to rest with full military honors on Monday, Nov. 12, at the Tatum Cemetery in Lea County.

Ninty-nine-year-old Virgil V. Wallace died on Nov. 8 in Idalou, Texas, just outside Lubbock. He was raised in Tatum after the Wallace family moved to Lea County in southern New Mexico not long after he was born in Anton, Texas.

Wallace enlisted with the U.S. Army in March 1941. After completing basic training, he served as a fuse setter with the 200th Coast Guard Artillery Unit, which was then sent for anti-aircraft training at Clark Field, Philippines.

Wallace was among the 1,800 members of the 200th and 515th Coast Guard Artillery units who were ordered to surrender by their superiors on April 9, 1942 after a spirited defense against Japanese forces that launched a surprise attack on the Philippines and Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on Dec. 7, 1941. The prisoners of war were then forced to march 60 torturous miles to POW camps. Many captives died of starvation or were killed by their captors along the way.

Wallace was held captive under equally brutal conditions for three and a half years, during which time he was forced to build air fields in the Philippines and then later shipped to Japan to work in Japanese mines. He weighed 104 pounds. (down from his original weight of 200 pounds) when he was released upon the surrender of Japan to the United States in August of 1945.

Wallace was awarded the Bronze Star and numerous other medals for his ordeal. After World War II, he returned to New Mexico where he worked for the state Department of Transportation and later Carrie Tingley Hospital in Truth or Consequences.

In 1956 Wallace married the former Millie Dunlap and celebrated 50 years of marriage before she passed away in 2007. Wallace is survived by his sister, Mary Dean, of Capitan; nephew and nieces Gerald Dean, Jeannie McCraw, Donda Pool, Janie Corley, Pam Pruitt, Martha Castillo and Jack and Virginia Dunlap; and numerous great-nephews and nieces.

New Mexico Department of Veterans' Services Secretary Timothy Hale and leadership from the New Mexico National Guard are scheduled to attend the funeral.

"Mr. Wallace was a living monument to the sacrifices made by the brave men of the New Mexico National Guard during World War II," Hale said. "He, along with his fellow defenders of the Philippines, endured some of the most horrific ordeals in the history of war — all in the name of defending our country. He will be remembered as a true American hero."

Ray Seva, public information officer for the New Mexico Department of Veterans' Services, furnished this report.