Friday the 28th of March 2003
Today was to begin one of the most memorable events of my life. And even now, I find it hard to tell many about it, to try and explain something so emotionally life changing.
The moment I had waited for…to meet one of these heroes, a Bataan Death March and POW survivor! I went with (my host) Margaret Garcia to her father’s home. There I would meet Evans Garcia and his childhood friend, Manuel Armijo. Both were at camp 17. I was so overwhelmed to see them that when I reached to shake their hand and they instead hugged me, my eyes filled with tears. And then Evans blessed me even more because, as introductions were made, Evans noticed his daughter wearing the necklace he had made for her. Evans then reached into a box and pulled out a necklace for me and gave it to me as a gift! It was such a VERY special moment and no words can ever explain how I felt. There really are no words.
I was not too very nervous either, because both men welcomed me so warmly and began to talk easily. First Evans showed me all his pictures on the mantel. Most were men in military uniforms, some who had been on Bataan. Then I explained what I was doing and I took out a copy of the page telling the “Project History. As I held a picture of myself and my students (“My Patriots”) for them to see, Evans took it, held it up to Manuel and said, “These are my heroes.” I quickly said, “Oh no, no, you are our heroes!” (I felt so unworthy of his declaration!) But Evans replied, “No, you are my heroes, these are my heroes because they have not forgotten us.” I again said, “You are the heroes. You held off almost the entire Japanese Army so we could win the war!” Evans got quiet, did not argue and then smiled humbly and quietly said, “Well, we tried.”
I took videoed and taped the conversations. I had so much fun. I would be in awe one moment and laughing with them the next. It was a VERY special afternoon for me; I felt honored as these men shared and trusted me with such a life-changing part of their past.
On the way to Las Cruces, Evans and
Manuel shared more information and memories We did
a lot of laughing too. And that is what amazed me right from the start
about these men. Their ability to tell their stories, some of which are
horrific memories, and yet then turn around and laugh. One of my
favorites was “The Crow Story”…
Evans (a cook) had
been told by a Japanese officer to prepare him a chicken. While doing so
he heard a rifle shot and questioning what had happened was told that a
crow had just been shot. Evans instructed a friend to sneak out and get
the crow. Next Evans “substituted” the chicken for a crow, dressing
it up to disguise it. Then he and another POW ate the chicken, laughing,
“Here we are eating chicken and the Japanese are eating crow!”
But the laughter soon settled when Evans had a sudden thought and
questioned his friend, “Benny, what happens if that officer likes it
(the crow) and brings us another chicken and asks us to cook it up
Saturday the 29th- I was up at 6:30 a.m. Too excited to sleep. We all planned to meet at the restaurant next door for breakfast at 7:45 am.
At breakfast I met my first Bataan Survivor! (aside from Evans and Manuel)
Ralph Rodriquez who was one of the
POW’s rescued by Army Rangers at Camp Cabanatuan! I was in awe. What a
heroic event and I was meeting one of the survivors! I cannot explain
the emotions that passed through me as I first saw him across the room,
and then was introduced and shook his hand! I told him how honored I was
and that I had read his story in “Ghost Soldiers”. Ralph just
grinned and said, “Did you see my picture in the book?” He seemed to
brush it off and was humble as Manuel and Evans were when you tried to
give them the recognition they deserve. I saw his family smile at me
politely, maybe even a little humored because I am sure they are used to
this “fuss over their father” by ones such as me. But I am not and I
was not going to try and suppress my excitement nor the honor I feel in
meeting these men one single bit. For me this is a monumental occasion!
Memorial Footprint Dedication Ceremony
I became overwhelmed before we had even stopped to park. I saw the statue in the distance, standing out against the crowds. I remember a deep intake of breath escaping me. Flags flying, waving in the breeze. Hundreds of people. Military and police everywhere. It was all SO much to take in all at once.
Margaret and the group showed me
where our reserved seats were. Tony Martinez came up to me and Margaret
introduced us. I was excited to meet him. Tony’s father was also a
Bataan Survivor and Tony is the who producer of the Documentary “Colors of
Soon the ceremony began and I forced myself to settle down into a seat. But it was not long and I was up in the isle with others taking pictures. A lady beside me struggled with tears, and as I shared my tissues with her, I was to find out that her father had passed away just 6 weeks earlier, yet his footprints had been cast and so he was being honored. What an emotional time for her! My heart went out to her.
There was another story told during
the ceremony of a man who died as there were plans being made to cast
his prints. But in a courageous move, the family set aside their pain
and allowed the footprints to be cast, just hours after his death, upon
approval from the coroner. The veteran’s family was in attendance and
there was hardly a dry eye.
The ceremony was almost 2 hours long. It was so fascinating though. The atmosphere alone was enough to stir the emotions, and patriotism dominated the mood. Families and veterans from all wars were represented. POW groups from previous wars too,
The Dedication began with music, and then the invocation. Prayers for all attending, our current soldiers fighting this war, and prayers for all those soldiers who had gone on before us. At this point I said a prayer for Wayne Petrie. Then there was the presentation of colors (the flags). How very emotional and honored I felt to stand with all these heroes. Then the National Anthem was played and as I glanced across at these “soldiers” my heart cried. And how proud I was to say the Pledge with them! I felt so humbled in their presence as I observed their honor to our flag; honor and love. How precious to someone who knows what it is to fight for it, then lose it, and then stand before it again, free! No words will ever express that moment watching these heroes.
Next came the stories of the Bataan, stories of the Death March. Then, as if I was not already overwhelmed with emotion enough…(words I will use a lot for lack of any other) America the Beautiful was sung. As it continued, as if in one accord, everyone rose to their feet and joined the soloist! I cried, as did many around me.
Then just as I dried my tears there
began the dedication to those who did not survive the March, the Camps,
the Hell Ships and those who were not with us now, having passed away.
It ended with TAPS being played. And then I did lose all sense of
composure. Although I stood quietly and silently,
Next the sculptor, the artist was
introduced. Then an explanation of the importance of adding “The
Poem” to the walkway was shared. Discussion on the appropriateness,
due to the words in the poem. Yet the decision was made and the poem is
a part of the Memorial. As it should be. War itself is not
“appropriate”, nor is the death, suffering and sorrow that comes
with war. Who are we to tell these men their “Poem” is not
acceptable?! After all they endured for our freedom!
Again, tears flowed, my own and many
around me, as the sculptor read “The Poem”, Frank
“We’re the battling bastards of Bataan; No Mama, no Papa, no Uncle Sam;
No aunts, no uncles, no cousins, no nieces, No pills, no planes, no artillery pieces.
And nobody gives a damn.
Nobody gives a damn
Next the State Commander came to the podium and began the dedication. Each attending veteran or family member accepted a shadow box commemorating the dedication. A story went with each veteran as it was presented. A very exciting dedication.
Following was the ceremonial removal of the shroud covering the imprints of the veterans footprints. Grandchildren, commissioned to carry on the story for their grandfather’s, held the shroud and in a somber, almost funeral like procession. Quiet and somber as music played.
Next the colors were retired, another moving prayer and the ceremony ended.
Then the FINALE! A Flair Helicopter flew into the area, circling the crowd. Patriotic music playing, the chopper flew over circling and shooting off flairs. A wonderful, exciting finale for such a momentous ceremony!!!
The whole experience was like this
day. One blessing after another, meeting one more kind heart and one
more new friend. The
memories of this trip, this blessing, will never leave my heart!