Entangled in one another’s arms, three soldiers stand in eternal tribute to the 70,000 men that braved the treacherous journey more than 60 years ago. These larger-than-life bronze statues represent the oft-forgotten American and Filipino soldiers who hiked the Bataan Peninsula, the 50,000 who survived and the thousands of others who did not.
The memorial, “Heroes of Bataan,” located in Veterans Park in Las Cruces is the country’s first federally funded monument honoring American and Filipino veterans of the Bataan Death March. The monument was dedicated on April 13, 2002, marking the 60th anniversary of the Death March and one of the most brutal chapters in American military history.
In New Mexico alone, hundreds of men from more than 300 communities fought to defend the Philippines during WWII. They were members of the 200th Coast Artillery Anti-Aircraft units of the New Mexico National Guard. Many surviving family members still reside in southern New Mexico. As part of the commemoration, the New Mexico State Highway and Transportation Department dedicated a portion of U.S. Highway 70 from Las Cruces to Alamogordo, N.M., as the Bataan Memorial Highway. The stretch of road “honors the battling bastards of Bataan and the many sacrifices made by New Mexicans during one of the most infamous events of WWII.”
Artist Kelley S. Hestir, who was commissioned to create the monument, said, “‘Heroes of Bataan’ portrays Filipino and American prisoners of war entwined in their struggle to survive the Death March. They look back to what has passed, down to what is present and ahead to what might be. The many footprints which surround the statue are symbolic of the many soldiers who began the march and the few who finished. The impressions were made from the feet of those who survived.” The idea to honor those who participated in the Bataan Death March originated in the late 1990s. While meeting with New Mexico Sen. Pete Domenici, Las Cruces businessman J. Joe Martinez mentioned the Death March and how it was often overlooked. Domenici agreed and plans to build a memorial ensued. Martinez -whose uncles John and Joe were prisoners of the Japanese army during World War II and at one time were presumed dead – became the inspiration behind the memorial.
Two of the soldiers bear the faces of Martinez’ uncles, while the third face is that of Command Sgt. Maj. Gilbert L. Canuela, who is stationed at White Sands Missile Range in Las Cruces. Canuela, who is of Filipino heritage, also had a family member participate in the Bataan Death March.
Since the dedication of the Bataan Death March Memorial Monument in 2002, a mock march has become an annual Las Cruces event.