History: The Way It Was During World War II
Posted Tuesday, May 15, 2012 - Paul Milan, Historical Society - for the Cibola Beacon
I was eight years old when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.
Our lives changed drastically, my family was living in Gallup, and in 1942 we planned to move to the Milan Ranch, now Milan. I remember that all my classmates vowed to join up and win the war with family members that were in the service. We spent the first year participating in the scrap metal drives, digging through the dumps and hauling scrap metal to the school for final pickup. Everything was rationed; cigarettes, sugar, meat, gasoline, tires, candy, butter, gum, and shoes, to name a few. My mother was an excellent candy-maker everyone brought her sugar to exchange for candy. My father, a chain smoker, had grown up in a family meat market so he slaughtered livestock at the ranch and bartered meat for cigarettes. Since there was a shortage of butchers, the stores in Grants would ask my father to organize their meat departments and was paid with cigarettes. Victory gardens were everywhere. My father spent many hours going to junkyards looking for car parts to keep the pickup moving, running out of gas and flat tires were routine.
The horror of the war began to sink in when we saw newsreels of actual combat and the huge number of lives that were lost, especially during the atrocities of the Bataan March. Our sacrifices seemed stupid after seeing what happened to our soldiers in Bataan. I was not familiar with many of my relatives in San Rafael, but after we moved to the Milan Ranch most our visits was to San Rafael. It seemed that everyone I met had family in the service. We shared great-grandparents with the Saavedra family in San Rafael, and I learned that their son Elias Saavedra was part of the Bataan march. The most that we did as students in Grants was to participate in War Bond Drives. Since I didn’t know many people in Grants, I went door to door in San Rafael and was amazed that most of the homes had an emblem with a star indicating someone in the service. Everyone that was home in San Rafael bought a bond from me, and I sold 18 bonds. No other student in Grants sold more than two bonds.
The reality of the war came to the citizens of Grants when we heard about the brothers Martin and Gabriel Tafoya and their friend Enrique Garcia, all from Cubero, whom had given up their lives in Bataan. The American Legion Post 60 was named in memory of the Tafoya brothers. Elias Saavedra survived the Bataan March and returned to San Rafael to become a Grants businessman. He still lives in San Rafael. I had the opportunity to work with Elias’ brother Gilberto (Gilve) Saavedra, who was a survivor of the Battle of the Bulge, in Germany. Gilve told me that his brother Elias did not talk about his ordeal. We also heard of Jesse Finley who was a master sergeant that survived the Bataan March - VFW Post 3221 was named after Finley. The other two survivors of Bataan were Sam Antonio from Acoma, and Angelo Sakelares from Deming who lived most of his life in Grants. When I was in junior high, I read about a war hero by the name of Gaby Galbadon from San Rafael; I haven’t run across the story again.
While living in Dallas, Texas, I had the opportunity to meet and work with Ben Montoya, who also was a veteran of the Bataan March. Ben was from New Mexico, and he had a very pleasant personality, was happy-go-lucky, and was of strong character. Ben knew every prisoner of war in New Mexico, including a cousin of mine who was a POW in Germany.
I attended Ben’s retirement party in Dallas. Most of the attendees were veterans from Vietnam, and they all talked about their experiences. Ben was very silent about his imprisonment, and after everyone left he told me, “I don’t know how I survived the march. And the voyage in the ship to Japan was even worse; my comrades were dying from starvation and every disease imaginable. We were forced to work in the coalmines in Japan, and the starvation by my comrades was unbelievable; if it weren’t for the soldiers from Gallup that taught us how to mine, they would have killed us. Some of the Japanese civilian miners would sneak us food, under penalty of death if caught. I have a hard time talking about this but we were glad to capture a rat for a meal.”
Ben returned to New Mexico and became the president of the POW Association of New Mexico, and he spent the rest of his life helping veterans who were POW victims. Before Ben died, he was leading a group to get the federal government to sue Japan for wages for the forced labor in the coalmines for four years.
Editor’s Note: Paul Milan, a longtime Cibola County resident, is a member of the Cibola County Historical Society.