It’s December and life is good. Christmas is a-comin’, the proverbial geese are getting fat, the winter solstice is just around the corner and before you know it spring will be here. Well, sure, there’s that winter thing to shiver through first, I suppose, but at least we’ve got a good stack of split firewood near the back door and we’ll be alright if, as Merle Haggard sings, “we can make it through December.”
It’s 2018 and holiday spirits ensue.
But with tomorrow, December 7, being Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day I was trying to imagine how badly the Christmas spirit was dampened back on that date in 1941. I’ve met a handful of veterans who were stationed in Hawaii and lived through that day, as well as some members of the 515th Brigade of the 200th Coast Artillery Regiment who were attacked the day after Pearl Harbor. On the other side of the Pacific.
It’s been almost 10 years now that I sat down with Pete Pearce in Luis Lopez - 95 at the time - for his recollections of serving with the 515th in The Philippines, his ordeal as one of the “Battling Bastards of Bataan.” He was 28 years old when he was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1941, and by the time the war ended, he had spent three and one half years as a prisoner of war.
Pete has passed away since my visit with him, and I still feel privileged to have heard his story. Before the war he was working as an engineer and ran cattle out of Springerville.
“I spent a lot of time in New Mexico, used the cattle driveway into Magdalena,” he told me at his home on Windy’s Farm Road in 2009. “My dad had the only trucking business in the area and did a lot of business buying and selling cattle.”
Upon entering the Army he was assigned to the 200th Coast Artillery, known as the New Mexico Brigade. That unit split into two, and the 515th was formed. They were sent to The Philippines in August, 1941 and had not had much time to train on the artillery.
So when Japanese bombers, along with strafing fighters, hit the island just past noon on Dec. 8, the New Mexico Brigade was not fully equipped for a sustained battle. But, Pete said, “Our orders from MacArthur was to keep Japan from having ‘free use of the whole island.’”
“We were anti-aircraft so we had to get our guns on them,” Pete remembered. “Then we were later moved up to the Bataan Peninsula, on the west side of Luzon.”
He said they were ordered to fight and hold their position until they were relieved. “They were going to make us stay out on duty until the last man. We were doing that very thing.”
Within three to four months the 12,000 Americans and some 66,000 Filipino troops had run out of food, and eventually ammunition.
“We were starving to death and I got down to where I weighed about 80 pounds,” Pete remembered. “We ran out of rations and were having to eat anything we could get our hands on. We ate every dog we could catch … every lizard. We ate the 250 horses of the 26th Cavalry, and all 47 of their mules.”
He said he was generally put on detail to find food, and “found that monkeys were easy to catch. We killed and ate the monkeys. We were under attack the whole time.”
“After April 9, we ran out of ammunition,” he said. “General King told us to meet down on the end of the peninsula. We thought we would have to cross over to Corregidor on the ninth, but instead he surrendered us. We had no ammunition left.”
After the army was surrendered, “we were taken prisoners and forced to walk the 85 miles from Mariveles Mountain to San Fernando,” now known as the Bataan Death March.
“We walked to San Fernando on the Bataan Highway right along edge of Manila Bay,” he said. “I remember looking down and seeing the lights of Manila at night, and the little lights of the burials over there.”
At the time he didn’t bother to keep track of how many days they walked, but “everybody had malaria, dysentery.” The 85 miles were covered in six days.
Pete was eventually transferred to a POW camp in Niigata, Japan, where he was used as forced labor to work in an iron foundry. In the end, of the 1,800 men in the New Mexico Regiment, less than half made it back home.
I think of Pete Pearce every time I pass that big mounted artillery piece in Socorro’s Isidro Baca Memorial Park. It is one of the actual guns used by the 515th in America’s defense of The Philippines.
It all started the day after Pearl Harbor.