The horrific memories have faded but not disappeared for Clovis’ Alvin Fails, one of a dwindling number of area Bataan death march survivors.
Telling his story from an easy chair, in which he now spends most of his days, the 95-year-old Fails recalled clearly the starvation rations on which he barely survived for almost four years in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp called O’Donnell.
“They would cook rice and keep the white parts for themselves, and only feed us the juice,” Fails said.
Fails’ son, Rick, said his father suffered from scurvy, berry-berry, malaria, dysentery and malnutrition during his experience as a POW in one of World War II’s most infamous atrocities. It started with his unit’s capture on April 9, 1942.
“War is hell,” said Fails, who has lived alone since wife Bernice’s death in 1999. “I weighed 135 pounds when I went in (to the service) and 72 pounds when I got back.”
Fails is acutely aware of his place in history.
“I’m lucky to be alive” said Fails, who lives with a black and white cat, several cockatiels and an aquarium full of fish, just across the street from his son, Rick, who helps care for him. “I’m one of the last ones.”
Buren Johnston and Melvin “Kike” Waltmon of Clovis and Alfred Haws of Logan are other known area survivors of the Bataan death march, according to Department of Veterans Services Ray Seva and Donna White of Logan.
Part of New Mexico’s 200th coast artillery stationed in the Philippines during World War II, the men endured a brutal, week-long, 60-mile trek in which 10,000 soldiers and civilians died of hunger, thirst and brutality. The survivors of the march spent 40 months as Japanese POWs.
“Few areas were touched as deeply by World War II as Curry, Roosevelt and Quay counties,” Eastern New Mexico University professor Don Elder said. “Virtually every family in the surrounding area had a relative affected.”
Elder said 89 men from Clovis were part of the National Guard 200th coast artillery, inducted into federal service at Fort Bliss in January of 1941 and deployed to the Philippines that fall.
Haws, a farmer, was inducted into the 200th in Clovis with his brother Claude and two uncles, Glenn Dutton and Albert Moss, according to DeLoyce Smith. Haws was the only one who returned home.
Haws lost his right arm when Americans bombed a steel mill where he was forced to work as a POW. He was liberated seven days later.
Smith said upon his return, her father received reconstructive arm surgery and through rehabilitation learned to use his left hand to write, tie his shoes, and even change the diapers of his three children. “He took care of us. I’ve never known him any other way,” Smith said.
DeLoyce Smith has four purple hearts on her wall. One belongs to her father. The other three belong to his brother and two uncles who died in POW camps.
Fails said he finally received a purple heart in 2004, almost 60 years after the fact.
April 9 marks the 70th anniversary of the Bataan death march, but local survivors may not be attending ceremonies.
“My father used to attend annually,” Smith said, “but he’s just gotten too frail to make the trip.”
Haws, 94, resides at an assisted living facility in Logan, where he gets around quite well in an electric wheel chair, Smith said. “He had to be one tough man to get through all that,” Smith said.
The New Mexico National Guard 200th coast artillery
The 200th consisted of 1,816 men. According to history professor Don Elder, 89 were from Clovis. Just over half the regiment survived the war, and within a year of their return, one-third of those died from war complications.
Department of Veterans Services official Ray Seva said only 61 Bataan death march survivors are left nationwide and 31 of those live in New Mexico.
History of the Bataan death march
Just hours after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, on Dec. 7, 1941, the Japanese attacked Fort Stotsenberg, on the Philippine Islands, where the 200th Coast Artillery was stationed for training exercises. The N.M. regiment was the first to return fire and was soon split, creating the 515th Coast Artillery.
The 200th and 515th Coast Artillery fought the Japanese for four months, retreating to the Bataan peninsula, where food and medical supplies were unable to reach them. Plagued by dysentery, malaria, typhoid and starvation, the regiment, along with 75,000 other American and Filipino soldiers, was surrendered to the Japanese on April 9, 1942, by Maj. Gen. Edward King.
The Japanese forced the sick, malnourished troops, along with captured civilians, to march 60 miles with no food or water, to internment camps. In one of the greatest atrocities of WWII, 10,000 POWs and civilians died or were murdered on the week-long trek, known as the Bataan death march.
In remembrance of the 200th coast artillery
Recent deaths of Bataan survivors include:
• Morgan T. Jones, 95, formerly of Clovis, Feb. 1.
• Lee C. Roach, 92, of Clovis, Jan. 20, 2011.
• Irvin R. Butler 95, of Portales, Dec. 25, 2010.
Memorials and tributes
White Sands Missile Range holds an annual Bataan memorial march. The event is scheduled for March 25 and requires registration. www.bataanmarch.com
The city of Albuquerque dedicated the Bataan Memorial Park on March 2, 1943, and the park’s Bataan Memorial on April 7, 2002. Annual memorial ceremonies are conducted by the Bataan-Corregidor memorial foundation.
Sante Fe is home to the N.M. National Guard Bataan Memorial Museum and hosts a memorial every April 9, at the Bataan Memorial Building.