The 200th Coast Artillery Regiment and the Bataan Death March

The 200th Goes to War

The 200th Coast Artillery of the New Mexico National Guard was, at the dawning of World War II, the longest continuously serving state militia in the United States, having come into being in 1598 as Spanish colonialists formally banded together to fight off the native people into whose territory they had settled. During the war with Mexico from 1846-1848, the unit was commanded by Army Colonel Christopher “Kit” Carson. The unit fought in the Civil War as well when Confederate Brigadier General Henry H. Sibley’s brigade of cavalry invaded the territory from Texas. They were “officially” organized in September 1880.

Initially designated the 111th Cavalry, the men who made up the “new” unit were, for the most part, horse soldiers at heart. The Depression was on and men could join up for a little fun, some camping out and shooting, and get a little bit of extra money for their time. As in many guard units, one brother might command another, nephews served under uncles, cousins might be platoon-mates, regardless – they were compadres to the end. Angelo Sakelares, of Deming, lied at age 14 to join, attracted by the horses. Gregorio Villasenor, enamored with bugle calls, taught himself the instrument so he could take part. They came from every part of the state and every occupation—miners, bankers, cowboys, students, lawyers—but once gathered, they became one. Once formed, and redesignated in the Coastal Artillery Corps, the unit was widely regarded as the best Coast Artillery unit in the Army—active or guard.

On 20 April 1940, the 111th Cavalry was redesignated the 207th Coast Artillery. Because New York State had a 207th Regiment with a distinguished WWI history, they protested this duplication – and the 200th was born. Luther Ragsdale stated, “We were a cross section of New Mexico…professors, students, miners, lumberjacks, cowboys, rodeo performers, sheepherders, farmers, bus drivers. We had Navajos, Pueblos, Apaches, and Zunis. And everyone performed 120 percent.”

Gunnery demonstration by the 200th Coast Artillery, New Mexico National Guard, on Governor’s Day 1940. Photo from the Palace of the Governors, Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Shortly before Christmas 1940, the 200th was federalized; they were sworn in 06 January 1941. By the middle of the month, they were on their way to Fort Bliss, Texas for training and soon swelled from 740 to approximately 1800 as more men entered the ranks of the 200th. By then it had become the premier anti-aircraft unit in the Army. Among the units chosen later that year to reinforce the Philippines at the request of General Douglas MacArthur was the 200th (though they were not sure where they were going until after they sailed). After a tour of the state that took their 250-plus vehicle convoy through Deming, Hot Springs, Socorro, Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Roswell—and all parts in between—they eventually moved west to Angel Island in San Francisco Bay.

USS President Coolidge. From the Library of Congress.

On August 30, the First Battalion loaded onto the USS President Pierce, bound for the Philippines. On September 9, Second Battalion loaded onto the USS President Coolidge for their trip. Passing the Golden Gate Bridge, Second Lieutenant Al Stuttman spoke to Sergeant Winston Shillito, “Some of us won’t see that bridge again.” Both men survived the war. The voyage aboard the Coolidge, the nicer ship of the two, was comfortable, with good food and a five-piece band. First Sergeant Calvin Graef “had charge of the military patrol, and [Second Lieutenant Thomas] Foy the cleanup, so we had the run of the ship. We got up when we felt like it, ate with the ship’s crew, and had the connections to get liquid refreshment sent to our stateroom. And we had most of the officers of the 200th down in our room most of the time!”

Photo of Clark Field in the Philippines. From the Smithsonian Institution.

Upon their arrival, they made their way to Clark Field and Fort Stotsenberg, about 80 miles north of Manila. Here, the task of the 200th was to guard the airfield – they had 77 officers and 1732 enlisted men. In addition to small arms, searchlights, and all of the other gear they brought, for defense, they had a battery of 50 caliber anti-aircraft guns, twenty-two 37mm guns (of which 7 were defective and had to go to Manila for repair) and twelve 3-inch guns (with 1 gun unserviceable). Ammunition was, for the most part, defective, with their small arms ammunition originally packed during the First World War. They would spend the next several months training, guarding the field, and maintaining their equipment.

Though activated for federal service, the men were not accepted as equals by the regular Army soldiers of the Philippines. However, the officers live quite well, with Captain Russell Hutchinson later recalling that his monthly $7.50 mess bill included “every fancy dessert you could name, and Scotch and soda noon and night. Our laundry was $2.50, and included four sets of khakis a day, a set of whites, pajamas, and underwear six times a day.” Even still, at the Officer’s Mess, the men were looked down on, being not only the “new guys,” but National Guard.

The Non-Commissioned Officer’s Club was no better. As Dorothy Cave writes in Beyond Courage: One Regiment Against Japan, 1941–1945, “…the 200th drew glassy glances. The Hispanics and Indians felt it doubly. The felony of being Guardsmen, compounded by race, drew snide insinuation and outright rudeness.” After a series of brawls, it was declared off-duty. The men decided to build their own club. However, the attack by Japan would preclude this.

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