World War II and New Mexico

World War II and New Mexico

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The Pajarito Plateau

World War II became a formative period in the history of New Mexico.  Besides the Manhattan Project, which continues to influence the state to this day, World War II had unique advantages and consequences for other aspects of New Mexico and its residents.


The Manhattan Project

The success of the Manhattan Project ensured that the military, large-scale government science, and the state of New Mexico would be tied together for decades to come.  After World War II, the Federal government took control of millions of acres of New Mexico land, which it used to build military bases, missile ranges, and R&D facilities.  The laboratory at Los Alamos became part of a new network of National Laboratories around the country.

The Sandia National Laboratories became the second National Laboratory in New Mexico.  Also focused on nuclear weaponry, Sandia was built in Albuquerque near the Kirtland Air Force base.  Millions of Federal dollars and jobs flowed into New Mexico.  As the University of New Mexico grew in size and prestige, its science and engineering departments began to work closely with the National Laboratories in New Mexico.

New Mexico's natural resources also helped promote the state's nuclear industries.  In the 1950s, a Navajo shepherd named Paddy Martinez discovered a large hunk of uranium near Grants, NM.  This touched off a massive mining rush; by the 1980s, 40% of America's Uranium supply was mined and milled in what became known as the Grants Uranium Belt.

Today, New Mexico has more scientific and technical workers per capita than any other state in the union.  Electronics firms relocate to New Mexico to be near Los Alamos and Sandia, and to take advantage of the pools of expertise they draw on.  Federal investment and the National Laboratories have made New Mexico a center of science and technology.


Native Americans on the Pueblos

Dances at San Ildefonso Pueblo, 1946. Photo courtesy of the Bretscher Papers, Churchill College, CambridgeThe arrival of the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, NM in 1943 was, at the time, believed to be a temporary "interference" by outsiders into northern New Mexico. Instead, the "lab on the Hill" has since become a permanent reality of the Pajarito Plateau. On an international scale, the laboratory at Site Y ushered in the nuclear age; on a local scale, it brought many changes to Pueblo communities that claimed the Pajarito Plateau as their ancestral land.  Some of these changes meant new commercial opportunities and employment for some of the northern Pueblos; others set in motion a legacy that is still controversial today. Close interaction with members of the Pueblos also enriched the lives of many Los Alamosans, Americans and foreigners alike, who had never before encountered Native American cultures.

Given its closeness to the secret city, it was mainly the San Ildefonso Pueblo that provided most of the laborers Los Alamos needed on any given day, even if daily laborers were also recruited from other nearby Pueblos, including Santa Clara, Cochiti and San Juan. Every day of the week, rain or shine, workers traveled by bus to the Hill, where they received their assignments and returned home at sunset.  Men were generally employed as truck drivers, construction and maintenance workers, carpenters, and gardeners. Women were recruited as maids and child-care providers. Their skills were truly vital for the entire Los Alamos community. More often than not, they worked in silence given their very limited knowledge of English and the complete ignorance of local languages on the part of Los Alamos residents.

Native Americans also constituted the growing multi-ethnic make up of New Mexico.  With Puebloans, Hispanics, Europeans, and people from throughout the United States in residence, the town of Los Alamos held a multifarious mixture of traditional and modern. Without the cooperation of all the people who worked there, the project might have disintegrated into chaos. Instead, the people at Site Y found a common language through the codes and code-switching to combat the chaos and work to end the war. 

Julian and Maria Martinez

As time went by, many of the Hill's residents developed an almost romantic appreciation of the customs and traditions of their Pueblo neighbors. Local crafts like rugs and pottery became hot-selling items, and the demand for them was often higher than the available supplies could provide. In order to keep up with their backorders, some local artists learned to sacrifice their intricate paintwork for simpler art themes. The secret city's residents also began to venture outside the fences to attend occasional Pueblo feast days, during which they were invited to eat in Pueblo homes and watch celebratory dances.  Overall, the encounter between Pueblo nations and the Los Alamos community seems to have produced a mixed legacy, especially for the Pueblos. The greatest impact was felt by the San Ildefonso Pueblo, which was geographically the closest to the Laboratory. For instance, as more and more Pueblo men and women were recruited for daily work at Site Y, villages were depopulated for most of the day and traditional activities, including childrearing for women and agricultural work for men, could no longer be performed.

As a result of the Manhattan Project location on the pueblo, local economies shifted from the centuries-old subsistence or bartering system to a cash economy, which some scholars appropriately called a plutonium economy. Increasingly, the pueblo economy became dependent on the outside world and in order to satisfy increasing demands, what were once intricate and ornate rugs or pottery, became increasingly simple in their themes and colors. Where in the past it took days to complete clay multicolored jars, it now took just a few hours to produce bi-color vases. Artistic beauty was sacrificed to the high demands of the market.

The 43 square miles on the Pajarito Plateau occupied by the Los Alamos community incorporated also some of the San Ildefonso ancestral land. With time, contaminants from the Hill were detected in water and air samples taken on or near Pueblo lands. The Pueblos were provided annual funds to evaluate the extent and possible health and environmental effects and to participate in decisions concerning cleanup levels.

Despite these issues, local leaders also recognize the transformation of Pueblo life brought on by the Manhattan Project, their cultural assimilation into New Mexican life and the economy. An important dimension of the project's legacy on the northern Pueblo communities is to reconcile the economic benefits of integration and the preservation of ancestral identities and ways of life.


Contributions to the War Effort Overseas

Army recruiting station

Residents of New Mexico participated in two highly noted events during World War II: the Battle for Bataan and the Bataan Death March and as members of the Navajo Code Talkers.

The Battle for Bataan

New Mexicans were the first to fight in the Pacific War. In August 1941, the 200th New Mexican National Guard, a volunteer group of 1,800 young men from throughout the state, was given notice that it had been selected for an overseas assignment of great importance. At about 0300 hours on December 8, 1941, the 200th went on full alert when the night radio crew picked up commercial broadcasts telling of the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. At 1235 hours, on December 8, Japanese bombers, accompanied by strafing planes, made their appearance over the Philippine Islands. The war was on for the 200th.

The 200th was shipped out to assume the mission of covering the retreat of the Northern Luzon force into the Bataan region of the Philippines, while the Provisional Manila Group—newly christened on December 19, 1941—and the 515th Coast Artillery assumed a similar mission for the South Luzon force. These units distinguished themselves during this action and during the defense of Bataan. However, on April 9, 1942, at the final stage of the Battle of Bataan, approximately 75,000 Filipino and American soldiers, commander by Major Ned P. King, Jr., formally surrendered to a Japanese army of 54,000 men under Lt. General Masaharu Homma. This was the single largest surrender of a military force in American history.

Bataan prisoners

Of the 1,800 New Mexican men sent to the Philippines, 900 survived the Battle for Bataan and the horrors and atrocities of the "death march" and the privation and deep humiliation of the 40 months spent in prisoner of war camps. The march, which involved the forcible transfer of 75,000 American and Filipino prisoners of war captured by the Japanese in the Philippines, was a non-stop 60-mile trek from the Bataan Peninsula to the prison camps.  The march was characterized by wide-ranging physical abuse and murder and resulted in high fatalities inflicted upon the prisoners and civilians along the route by the armed forces of the Empire of Japan. Beheadings, cut throats and casual shootings were the more common and merciful actions—compared to bayonet stabbings, rapes, disembowelments, numerous rifle butt beatings, and a deliberate refusal to allow the prisoners food or water while keeping them continually marching for nearly a week (for the slowest survivors) in tropical heat. Falling down, or being unable to continue moving, was tantamount to a death sentence, as was any degree of protest or expression of displeasure.

On June 6, 1942, the Filipino soldiers were granted amnesty by the Japanese military and released. The American prisoners continued to be held. Camp O'Donnell was hell to the prisoners. They would line up once a day for water. Men were weak and dying from dysentery and beriberi. Eventually they were transferred to camps outside of the Philippines. The start of this process began with American prisoners moving from Camp O'Donnell to prison camps in Japan, Korea, and Manchuria in transports known as 'hell ships.' The 511 prisoners of war who still remained in the Philippines as of January 1945 were freed during an attack on the camp led by U.S. Army Rangers.


Navajo Codetalkers

Navajo code talkers

The Navajo people, whose reservation is located in the northern part of New Mexico, were vital to the Pacific War. Navajo code talkers took part in every assault the U.S. Marines conducted in the Pacific from 1942 to 1945. They served in all six Marine divisions, Marine Raider battalions and Marine parachute units, transmitting messages by telephone and radio in their native language—a code that the Japanese never broke.

The idea to use Navajo for secure communications came from Philip Johnston, the son of a missionary to the Navajos and one of the few non-Navajos who spoke their language fluently. Johnston, reared on the Navajo reservation, was a World War I veteran who knew of the military's search for a code that would withstand all attempts to decipher it. He also knew that Native American languages, notably Choctaw, had been used in World War I to encode messages.

Johnston believed Navajo answered the military requirement for an undecipherable code because Navajo is an unwritten language of extreme complexity. Its syntax and tonal qualities, not to mention dialects, make it unintelligible to anyone without extensive exposure and training. It has no alphabet or symbols, and is spoken only on the Navajo lands of the American Southwest. One estimate indicates that fewer than 30 non-Navajos, none of them Japanese, could understand the language at the outbreak of World War II.

Early in 1942, Johnston met with Major General Clayton B. Vogel, the commanding general of the Amphibious Corps, Pacific Fleet, and his staff to convince them of the Navajo language's value as code. Johnston staged tests under simulated combat conditions, demonstrating that Navajos could encode, transmit, and decode a three-line English message in 20 seconds. Machines of the time required 30 minutes to perform the same job. Convinced, Vogel recommended to the Commandant of the Marine Corps that the Marines recruit 200 Navajos.

In May 1942, the first 29 Navajo recruits attended boot camp. Then, at Camp Pendleton, Oceanside, California, this first group created the Navajo code. They developed a dictionary and numerous words for military terms. The dictionary and all code words had to be memorized during training. Once a Navajo code talker completed his training, he was sent to a Marine unit deployed in the Pacific theater. The code talkers' primary job was to transmit information on tactics and troop movements, orders, and other vital battlefield communications over telephones and radios. They also acted as messengers and performed general Marine duties.

Praise for their skill, speed and accuracy accrued throughout the war. At Iwo Jima, Major Howard Connor, 5th Marine Division signal officer, declared, "Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima." Connor had six Navajo code talkers working around the clock during the first two days of the battle. Those six sent and received over 800 messages, all without error.

The Japanese, who were skilled code breakers, remained baffled by the Navajo language. The Japanese chief of intelligence, Lieutenant General Seizo Arisue, said that while they were able to decipher the codes used by the U.S. Army and Army Air Corps, they never cracked the code used by the Marines. The Navajo code talkers even stymied a Navajo soldier taken prisoner in Bataan. (About 20 Navajos served in the U.S. Army in the Philippines.) The Navajo soldier, forced to listen to the jumbled words of the talker transmissions, said to a code talker after the wJapanese in New Mexicoar, "I never figured out what you guys who got me into all that trouble were saying."

In 1942, there were about 50,000 Navajo tribe members. As of 1945, 540 Navajos served as Marines. From 375 to 420 of those trained as code talkers; the rest served in other capacities. Navajo remained potentially valuable as a code even after the war. For that reason, the code talkers, whose skill and courage saved both American lives and military engagements, only recently earned recognition from the government and the public.


Japanese in New Mexico

Japanese internment

After Pearl Harbor, the conditions of Japanese in American significantly deteriorated, and this included those Japanese sent to New Mexico.  Civilian and military officials had concerns about the loyalty of the ethnic Japanese on the West Coast and considered them to be potential security risks, although these concerns often arose more from racial bias than actual risk.  The policy of Japanese American Internment began shortly after US entry into World War II, and refers to the forcible relocation and internment of approximately 110,000 Japanese nationals and Japanese Americans to housing facilities called “War Relocation Camps”.

In February 1942, the Department of Justice acquired an 80-acre site from the New Mexico State Penitentiary that included a Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camp built in 1933 to house 450 men. By March, the CCC camp was expanded to house 1,400 men. Housing included wood and tar-paper barracks and 100 "victory huts." All but 14 of the victory huts were later replaced by standard Army barracks.

The camp originally held 826 Japanese American issei (immigrants), all men from California. One died at the camp, 523 were transferred to relocation centers, and 302 were transferred to U.S. Army custody. The last internee left the Santa Fe internment camp on September 24, 1942. The camp was then used to house German and Italian nationals until February 1943 when the U.S. Army transferred all civilian internees back to the Department of Justice. The Santa Fe camp was then expanded and by June 1945 it held 2,100 Japanese American men whose average age was 53.

Many of the new arrivals were from the Tule Lake Segregation Center and had renounced their U.S. citizenship. This included 366 of what the government considered the most active pro-Japan leaders at Tule Lake. In March 1945, a riot at Santa Fe began when the "Tuleans" were requested to turn in their sweatshirts with rising sun motifs. After the leaders of the protest were removed to Fort Stanton, a crowd gathered, rocks were thrown, and tear gas and clubs were used to break up the crowd. Over 350 internees were put in a stockade and 17 more were sent to the Fort Stanton segregation camp. There were no further disturbances at the camp even after another 399 internees from Tule Lake arrived.

After the end of the war, the Santa Fe facility was used as a holding and processing center for other internment camps. As late as March 1946, 200 Japanese American men were transferred to Santa Fe from Fort Lincoln. However, by May only twelve of these remained. The camp closed shortly thereafter and all property was sold as surplus.