Few aware of New Mexico’s victims on death march

By Lynn Moncus

Two weeks ago, we visited a while about my young friend from New Mexico State University, Debbie Widger, and her kindness in keeping in touch with old Aggies. She knows enough about us to know our habits, likes, and dislikes and often brings a reminder of that favorite campus. Knowing my affinity for history, she brought the book, “Aggies of the Pacific War: New Mexico A&M and the War with Japan” by Walter Hines. What a treasure!

Although I was only in grade school during that era, I have been privileged to know many of those Aggies who served in that war and have certainly heard stories about many others. Over 2000 Aggies served in WWII with a large number seeing action in the Pacific.

Many also were involved in the Bataan Death March and some of those survived in order to hear General Hugh M. Milton, former President of NMA&M, enter the prison camp to call roll of his boys from State College and to let them know they were then free. Among those was “Wild Bill” Porter who had become known as “The Sergeant York of WWII.” He had saved many of his men before having to surrender and had managed to stay alive throughout those barely endurable years. As Bill was heard to say in the ’70’s, “I was once known as Wild Bill Porter, but I’m just Gentle Bill now.” He and the general had remained good friends through the years, and he had also remained a very loyal Aggie. General Milton went on to become Under Secretary of the Army and upon retirement returned to Las Cruces to live and to continue to be a major part of life on campus. Few people could deliver the resounding speeches for which he was so well known, and few people were more revered by Aggies of all ages.

Although Col. Alexander W. Chilton did not serve over seas, he played a major role in army life in New Mexico during the war traveling throughout the state to see about Aggies who had been members of R.O.T.C. and being sure that the New Mexico National Guard was continuing necessary training. That R.O.T.C. program had been the only one in New Mexico other than the one at the Military Institute at Roswell. Because of it, Aggies were already serving in the military at the outbreak of the war. Col. Chilton had come to New Mexico as Head of the Military Science Department. As a graduate of West Point, he had already spent much time abroad and was honored to serve on the home front. Some of us remember him best as one of our favorite English professors and as one of the few people who could recite by heart most of the poetry he had ever studied. Others, such as President Eisenhower, knew him as a professor at West Point. He maintained contact with as many of the Aggies as possible and kept in touch with them through the years.

As I look at the list of names of the Aggies who served in the Pacific during that war, I am more than a little overwhelmed because we had so very many heroes. Actually, few people are aware of just how many heroes came from New Mexico and how many endured or died on that death march. Our guard was among the first to go, and many of our Aggies had led the way as young officers just trained at NM A&M. We are most fortunate to have known so many heroes and to be able to meet and greet some of them on the street today.