ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Walking into the Visitor Center of the New Mexico Veterans’ Memorial on Saturday afternoon, you’d have thought a rock star had stopped in.
A throng of people were amassed around someone near the front of the center’s banquet hall, cellphones and cameras flashing.
It was no rock star: it was one of New Mexico’s own Battling Bastards of Bataan, Joe Romero, who was at last presented with his World War II medals during a ceremony there Saturday.
“As long as there is a New Mexico National Guard, these men will never be forgotten,” said New Mexico National Guard Adjutant General Kenneth Nava. “We will never forget their sacrifices.”
Nava pinned medal after medal — including a Bronze Star for meritorious achievement in combat — to Romero’s chest, as many in the watching crowd shed tears.
Though almost 97 years old, wheelchair bound and unable to speak, Romero still has a sparkle in his eye and it was clear he understood and appreciated all that was happening.
Romero, a Las Cruces native, joined the National Guard in 1941 at 19, along with his younger brother, Frank.
He was soon deployed to the Philippines with the 200th Coast Artillery Regiment to participate in combat training.
But by the end of 1941, the 200th came under very real attack by the Japanese, though they’re credited as the “first to fire.”
After holding off Japanese forces for months, the U.S. troops were surrendered in April 1942.
Tens of thousands of American and Filipino soldiers were taken as prisoners of war and forced to march more than 60 miles in what became known as the Bataan Death March.
It’s estimated that 10,000 died during the march.
But the Romero brothers survived.
Joe Romero spent 42 months as a prisoner of war, mostly doing hard labor in a lead and zinc mine, but also serving on “burial duty,” his daughter, Ana Marie Gonzales, said.
“My dad said there was nothing more beautiful than seeing the flag when he was liberated,” Gonzales said.
Gonzales said she doesn’t know whether her father ever received his service medals.
So to ensure her father received the recognition he deserved, she undertook the tedious process of having his medals reissued.
“It’s taken me 40 years of trying to obtain these medals, always coming to a dead end,” she said.
With the help of New Mexico Department of Veterans Services Cabinet Secretary Jack Fox, Romero finally received his medals.
Romero worked for many years at Levine’s Department Store in Albuquerque, where he now lives with Gonzales. He turned 97 on Tuesday.
In a 2012 Journal story on Bataan Death March survivors, Romero spoke of the feeling of liberation.
“I was one of the happiest men in the whole world,” he said, “because I had freedom.”