VOICES FROM THE PAST: World War II in Northern New Mexico

by Robert J. Tórrez

The recent popularity of World War II movies such as “Pearl Harbor,” Band of Brothers” and Tom Brockaw’s book, The Greatest Generation, may cause one to wonder what effect the war had on communities in New Mexico. I have been fortunate to some extant issues of the T. A. Tarn, a school newspaper published in the Tierra Amarilla Public Schools during the 1940s. This simple publication contains some wonderful and poignant writings that reflect the thoughts and fears of school children in northern New Mexico during this critical time in our history.

Published by the staff and students of the high school at Tierra Amarilla, the T. A. Tarn contains a wonderful sampling of everything one would expect to find in a school newspaper. School news, gossip (mild by today’s standards, considering the Tierra Amarilla schools were administered and staffed principally by nuns of the Franciscan Order), sports and local events are featured. However, the available issues published between 1943 and 1946 clearly reflect local concern over the men and women who had left the community to serve their country.

One of the most touching stories printed in the T. A. Tarn is one that had been told to me several years ago by Henry Ortiz when I spoke at a genealogy conference in Santa Fe Springs, California. Mr. Ortiz, a former resident of Los Ojos, located near Tierra Amarilla, approached me with a story of an amazing encounter with his brother while he was stationed in India during the war. Mr. Ortiz indicated that while stationed in India, he had attended Sunday Mass, unaware that his brother Ruben was assigned to a unit that was stationed nearby. Image Mr. Ortiz’ surprise to find Ruben sitting in a bench behind him! Later, when I found the story in the T. A. Tarn, I had the honor of sending Mr. Ortiz a copy of the item that confirmed his amazing story.

The same issue also carried a story submitted by student Erminda Martinez about Christmas midnight Mass at La Puente, a nearby village, in 1943. Ms. Martinez noted that most parishioners in attendance that night had relatives fighting in distant lands. The sermon had reminded a tearful congregation of all “those poor warriors that are shedding their blood for democracy and freedom.” A separate article by sixth grader Cordelia Abeyta, who had also attended that same midnight Mass, spoke of the dangers faced by the men at the front. She hoped that the prayers offered on their behalf would give them courage. Then she added:

How he would love to be at the family dinner table, to go with the rest of the family to church, to walk about in the familiar places. Does not the mother notice the absences in every corner of the house? Shall next Christmas be brighter? Let us have faith in God… Ask His help for the boys, for all are in danger.

It is obvious that the home front, even in this remote part of New Mexico, was preoccupied by the war. Enlistment of local boys was closely monitored and visits home on furlough were eagerly reported. The “Class Prophecy” for the class of 1944 foresaw some form of military service for most of the twenty graduates of Tierra Amarilla High School. “We see women in WAC uniforms, boys in Navy outfits, boys in Army uniforms, girls in nurse regalia, business women, housewives…,” wrote the class muse. His predictions, however, concluded with the hopeful image of the Statue of Liberty, “with the American Eagle and the Dove of Peace in her outstretched hand.” Even the local clergy got into the act as the Rev. Gerard Geyer, O. F. M., was admitted into the U. S. Navy. When Lieutenant Geyer returned several months later to visit his former parishioners, he reported on some local boys he had encountered while stationed at San Diego.

The saddest news, however, consisted of reports of men killed in action and even a former student killed in an industrial accident at a defense plant in Utah.  The report of the death of Raymond Martinez, who was killed in Italy in October of 1944, expressed the hope that he died so “that many others may live as men and not as puppets of the state which has no concern for man as an individual.”

Not all the news was so serious. Reports of war bond and stamp sales, improvements to school facilities, class projects, and news of former students filled the pages of the T. A. Tarn.  However, the effect of the war on even this small part of New Mexico was obvious. There were eight students in the graduating class of 1945, including only two men. Most of the others had left school on accelerated programs and enlisted in military service or left to work in some war industry. It is not difficult to see how the sacrifices of these men and women have earned them the honor of being our “greatest generation.”

 

Copyright 2001, Robert J. Tórrez

 

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