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Summary Judgment

Taos, New Mexico Remembers the Bataan Death March

Jun 30, 2018 | by William Perry Pendley

Last month, Albuquerque resident, Ralph Rodriguez, Jr., died.  One of the last “Battling Bastards of Bataan” survivors of a death march through the Philippines jungle, methodical malnutrition, and sadistic torture by Japanese in World War II, he was 100.  In northern New Mexico’s high desert, bounded by the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, in the Town of Taos, is a memorial to him and men with whom he served, including those whose remains were never recovered.  Its cross drew the ire of a deep-pocketed, anti-religion group, but help is on the way if the Supreme Court of the United States grants a petition filed last week. 

On December 8, 1941, hours after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese forces invaded the Philippines, which were defended by the 515th Coastal Artillery Regiment, 200th Coastal Artillery Regiment, 192nd Tank Battalion, 194th Tank Battalion, and regular, national, and commonwealth groups of the Philippine Army.  The 515th and 200th were New Mexicans sent to the Philippines because most spoke fluent Spanish.  They fought bravely but Japanese forces quickly overwhelmed them.  On April 9, 1942, they surrendered.

Immediately, the Japanese sent survivors on the “Bataan Death March” to prison camps 65 miles away.  Prisoners received little food or water and were tortured frequently.  Those who could not keep up, or angered their captors, were summarily executed.  The New Mexicans were singled out because the Japanese could not distinguish those of Mexican descent from the Filipinos, so they beat them brutally in frustration.  A Filipino division of 350 was rounded up and every man beheaded!  Of the estimated 80,000 who began the march, only 54,000 reached its end. 

In the prison camps, the horrors continued.  Prisoners died of malnutrition (their diet was Whistle Weed soup and watery, maggot-infested rice), disease (dengue fever, beriberi, dysentery, malaria, typhus, and typhoid fever ravaged the men), or “subhuman treatment,” in the words of Sgt. Rodriguez.  The rest were used as slave labor until the war ended in 1945.  Of the 1,816 New Mexicans who reached the Philippines, only 987 returned home.

New Mexican War Mothers, using private donations—the Town of Taos did no fundraising, planning, designing, or building—erected a memorial in Taos’s plaza to honor their loved ones.  The Memorial contains a brass plaque with the names of New Mexicans who died on the Bataan Death March and other Taos citizens who were killed in World War II, a sculpture of soldiers sustaining each other during the march, and the flags of the United States and New Mexico.  A central feature is a Latin cross, below which the plaque with the soldiers’ names is affixed.

Last year, Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation wrote the Town of Taos demanding that it move the Memorial to a “more appropriate private location” or defend a federal lawsuit because the Memorial’s cross purportedly violates the Establishment Clause.  Across the country, another memorial—honoring 49 Prince George’s County, Maryland soldiers who died in World War I—is under attack by yet another radical group.  A Maryland federal district court rejected the challenge but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, ruling 2-1, reversed.  Defenders of the memorial sought en banc review, which was denied over a passionate dissent.  Last week, the defenders petitioned the Supreme Court for review.

The Town of Taos, represented by Mountain States Legal Foundation, will urge that the Court grant the Maryland petition, reverse the Fourth Circuit, and hold that crosses at war memorials do not violate the Constitution.  The Supreme Court’s jurisprudence on the Establishment Clause is badly muddled and would be unrecognizable to the Founders.  It must be rectified.  Perhaps a brief from a small mountain town in the West will help the justices understand what is at stake and honor Sgt. Rodriquez and the men of the 515th and 200th with whom he served bravely in a faraway land in defense of their country.

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