Remembering a veteran
Last updated 6/7/2023 at 9:44am
If you grew up in New Mexico and are my age or older, I would bet money you knew someone who was in the Bataan Death March in World War II.
It might have been your dad, your uncle, a neighbor, a friend.
Take just two of our counties.
Fifty-four service members from Roosevelt County and 87 from Curry County ended up on that horrific march in April of 1942.
Nineteen of those from Roosevelt County and 40 from Curry County died then or in the prison camp years that followed in what is -- without question -- one of the most brutal chapters of World War II history.
Following liberation and their return to the United States, the Bataan survivors were honored repeatedly and deservedly.
The last one we know of with roots in our immediate area - Alvin Fails - died in 2014 at the age of 97. Those who attended his funeral marked it as the end of an era.
It appears we were wrong.
An intriguing twist
Randy Dunson, commander of American Legion Blair-McDermott Post #31 in Portales, called me at the end of April and left a message on my phone that went something like this:
"I got a notification from a cousin that one of his friends in Oklahoma City is a nephew to a fellow from Portales named Thomas Vernon Long. He was in the Bataan Death March and then died in a Japanese prison camp in 1942. They have identified his remains and want to bring him back to Portales and bury him in June."
But, Dunson said, this story had an intriguing twist.
The remains believed to belong to Thomas Vernon Long were already buried in the Portales Cemetery, where they had been since being returned to Portales in 1949 - seven years after his death at Camp Cabanatuan in the Philippines.
Besides raising all kinds of questions (the most obvious being, who IS buried in Long's grave?), Dunson and those of us who heard about this quickly realized this news was an incredible gift.
Not only was it a gift to the family of this World War II veteran, but it was a gift to all of us in the form of an unexpected opportunity to honor and remember the impact left on our area by our "boys of Bataan."
'This is a miracle'
Let me tell you more about Pfc. Long.
He was born on Jan. 21, 1915, in Rogers, the second child of Oscar and Bettie Long, and their first and only son.
In time he'd have five younger sisters to go with his older sister, Grace. They were, in order, Essie, Inez, Josephine, Faye, and Billie Jean.
The youngest, Billie Jean, goes by Jean these days ... Jean Long Sawyer. She lives in Flagstaff, Ariz. She's 96 now and the only surviving sibling.
I called her to learn more about her big brother. Before we could even get started, she told me, "This is a miracle."
A jar of beans and a pineapple
Sawyer said her family called her brother by his middle name, Vernon, but after they settled in Portales in 1930 and he became a standout football player for first the Portales High School Rams and later the Greyhounds at the newly opened Eastern New Mexico Junior College, his teammates dubbed him "Louie."
Long doted on his littlest sister. He was 11 when she was born.
"I was the baby in the family," Sawyer said. "He did special things for me that the others didn't get to enjoy."
One Christmas, she remembered, there was a contest held by a Portales business to guess the number of dried beans in a gallon jar.
"My brother got a gallon jar and filled it with beans and counted them," Sawyer recalled. "He won the contest and won a Shirley Temple doll for me. I kept it until I was 18."
Another time, Long saved up precious pennies to buy a pineapple - a rare treat for their family.
"He cut it up, shut me in the kitchen and let me eat all I wanted of it," Sawyer said, "and THEN the other girls got to have some. He knew I liked pineapple. He was pretty darned special."
The road to induction
Vernon Long graduated from Portales High School in 1933. Over the next several years, he attended college and played football at Eastern New Mexico JC, New Mexico A&M, and Colorado State College of Education in Greeley.
"He was over 6 feet tall and very athletically built," Sawyer said. "He had blonde hair ... a tiny bit wavy. He was a good-looking guy."
Sawyer said their father always insisted the family should go to young Vernon's games, but, she said, "I didn't want to see him get hurt, so I would listen on the radio."
According to the Portales Daily News, Long was one of 25 selectees who were inducted by the Roosevelt County Selective Service Board on March 9, 1941, in a "special ceremony at the Courthouse on Sunday before a large group of parents and friends."
The 25 inductees heard talks that day by Floyd Golden, J.B. Priddy, Embry Wall, and Ray J. Lofton - all members of the County Selective Service Board. They were also given words of encouragement from two World War I veterans: Ray Morgan, commander of the American Legion, and J.E. Wise.
An afternoon blackout
When Long left Portales in March of 1941, Gary Cooper and Madeleine Carroll were starring in Cecil B. DeMille's "Northwest Mounted Police" at the Yam Theatre, while the Kiva was showing "Chad Hanna" starring Henry Fonda and the glamourous Dorothy Lamour.
The directory of local professionals printed in the Portales Daily News included C.M. Compton, attorney at law; Dr. E.T. Hensley, physician and surgeon; Dr. William LeMaster, dentist; and Dr. W.L. Black, veterinarian.
In his popular newspaper column "Spud Spouts" for March 10, 1941, publisher J.G. 'Spud' Greaves wrote, "Not only did Portales send 25 draftees Sunday, but the weatherman gave Portales a blackout. When the dust storm hit around three o'clock, it became so dark that the lights had to be turned on. Visibility was less than one block, and cars were running with lights on."
The newspaper reported that the group left by bus for Santa Fe the morning after the induction ceremony, but it was "not known whether they would be sent to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, or to Fort Bliss, Texas."
Fort Bliss, Texas, it was, and it was there that Long underwent basic training.
Off to the South Pacific
By August or September, he was in Albuquerque as a member of the 200th Coast Artillery, ready to leave for the South Pacific.
"The whole family went up to see him off when he left," his sister said.
After that ... "We got some correspondence," Sawyer said. "My mother got some letters from him. I can remember one that was on that thin paper ... airmail paper ... that's all I remember."
In this era of electronic communication, we grow concerned when we send a message and don't have an answer back within minutes.
It's hard for us to imagine the molasses-slow exchanges that took place during World War II, where news in either direction could take months ... or even years.
It was around Christmas of 1941 when the Long family last heard from Vernon.
An absolute tragedy
We know the Battle of Bataan began when Japanese forces invaded the Philippines in January of 1942. The dreadful history of what followed has been told and retold.
One of the best accounts, Beyond Courage, was penned by Dorothy Cave.
The 200th Coast Artillery was, Cave wrote, "a small, undermanned regiment, that, split into two smaller units, performed a job so large they became, toward the end, a brigade, and finally a legend."
She continued, "Through native toughness and regimental brotherhood, their death rate was lower than average for Japanese prison camps, but because they went in toto, New Mexico lost more men per capita in World War II than any other state.
"It is believed," Cave noted, "that no fighting group in World War II won more citations than they."
On April 9, 1942, the combined American and Filipino forces on Bataan unconditionally surrendered to the Japanese after months of brutal fighting, and already worn out and half-starved.
The 65-mile Bataan Death March followed.
The National World War II Museum offers this heartbreaking summary: "During the Battle of Bataan, troops suffered from disease, hunger, wounds, and deaths. The Bataan Death March is remembered as an absolute tragedy."
The Death March took the lives of hundreds of Americans and thousands of Filipinos.
Vernon Long survived the march and like a host of his fellow New Mexicans eventually ended up in the cruel and disease-ravaged confines of Camp Cabanatuan in the Philippines.
Military records show that he died on Aug. 28, 1942 - likely from malaria. He was 27 years old.
The first telegram
It was not until April of 1943 - 10 months after he had died and 16 months since his family had had any word of him - that the Army sent notice to Portales of his death.
"I remember when we got the first telegram," his sister said. "I was home alone with my mother. They brought the telegram to the front door ... my mother was in the back, sewing. I was afraid to give it to my mother by myself, so I called for an older sister to come."
More than 407,000 servicemen and women lost their lives in World War II, so it was not an uncommon experience for there to be no immediate return of a loved one's remains ... or any return at all.
The Long family held a memorial service for their son and brother at First Baptist Church in Portales on June 25, 1943, conducted by the Rev. Joe Grizzle and Floyd Golden.
A mother's intuition
Six years passed. In September of 1949, members of the family were notified by the military that Long's remains had been found in a grave in the Philippines and were being returned to the United States, crossing the ocean on the U.S. Army Transport Pvt. Joseph F. Merrell, and then being sent to Wheeler Mortuary in Portales.
The casket arrived with strict instructions to "not open under any circumstances," according to members of Long's family.
Call it a mother's intuition ... call it the love of a baby sister for her only brother, Sawyer said she and her mother always wondered about the contents of that coffin that was returned to Portales and buried here in 1949.
"You know how you have a feeling for something?" she said. "Both my mother and myself ... neither of us ever believed my brother's remains were in that casket."
A service was conducted on Oct. 9, 1949, in the Starlight Chapel at Wheeler Mortuary, and that sealed casket was buried in the Portales Cemetery with full military honors. Local Bataan survivors were among those who attended.
Thomas St. Peters, a nephew of Long's who was born after his uncle had already died, was only 5 or 6 at the time. He remembers the banks of flowers that were delivered to his grandmother's home in honor of the uncle he never knew.
The strangest story
All of this brings us back to that phone message I had from Randy Dunson in April.
Thomas St. Peters - now almost 80 and living in Oklahoma - said in 2020 that he and other members of his family were contacted by the Department of Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.
This noteworthy agency has one mission: To provide the fullest possible accounting for missing personnel to their families and the nation.
"Why keep searching?" the DPAA asks on its website. "The answer is simple. You never leave a fallen American behind."
In the Long family's case, the DPAA was looking for known relatives of individuals who had died on Bataan, in the Death March, or in the prison camps, in a hunt for DNA samples to help identify or eliminate potential identities of the remains under investigation.
Jean Sawyer's daughter, Sharon Martinez, said after the DPAA reached out, four members of her family submitted DNA samples: she, her mother, her sister, and her cousin St. Peters. He was of special interest as the "closest living male relative."
Earlier this spring, the Long family was notified that the genetic material submitted by of all of them matched remains that had been under analysis from a collective grave shared by several men who had died on or about the same date as Long at Camp Cabanatuan.
In late April, St. Peters happened to tell that story at a Wednesday morning Bible study in Oklahoma, which was also attended by Randy Dunson's cousin.
And then, Dunson said, "My cousin called me and said he'd heard the strangest story."
'A bunch of rocks'
Did this unexpected find come as a shock to the Long family?
"We all kind of expected it ... in a way," St. Peters said, "after the way it was handled in the beginning in 1949."
His sister Julia St. Peters Boyce concurs, and added that she expects it wasn't the only mistake that was made during that challenging chapter of history.
"They were under a lot of pressure to give families closure," Julia said. "My aunt ... she's said her whole life that there was nothing in there but a bunch of rocks."
The first part of that mystery has now been solved - with no rocks involved.
That casket from 1949 was exhumed on May 26 by representatives from the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency in what was a complicated day-long process, according to Scott Reeves, director of Wheeler Mortuary.
Reeves confirmed that the casket was opened and there were indeed human remains inside, along with a uniform. Those remains were transported to Albuquerque last week for an escorted return to Joint Base Pearl Harbor–Hickam in Hawaii where the DPAA will conduct DNA testing.
According to the DPAA, the "identification process can take anywhere from a few months to several years to complete."
With any luck at all, another family may yet receive long awaited news that their loved one's remains have been identified and can be rightfully returned.
The best brother
If war is the most gruesome human invention, science is surely one of most beautiful. Science assures that the true remains of this Portales soldier are now at last coming home.
Jean Long Sawyer was around 15 the last time she saw her brother, and a month shy of her 16th birthday when he died.
Almost 81 years later, her love for her brother hasn't faded in the least.
"He was a good son and as far as I'm concerned the best brother that anyone could have," she said. "He was just tops in my book."
Receiving this news, she said, is the highlight of her life.
Sawyer and 15 or so other members of the Long family are traveling to Portales this week, and the United States military is escorting Vernon Long home at last.
He will be buried next to the mother he loved ... in the hometown he left on the heels of a sandstorm in 1941.
A public invitation
We are invited to bear witness to the graveside service with full military honors scheduled for 10 a.m. Thursday at the Long family plot. It's located a short distance inside the north gate of the Portales Cemetery.
The family will be cordoned into a private area immediately by the grave. We are asked to respectfully gather outside that area in support for them, and in honor of Long and all who served with him.
Dunson spoke for many of us when he said, "I never dreamed we'd be getting to honor one of these guys 80 years later."
I don't know about you, but I choose to believe in a universe where Thomas Vernon "Louie" Long knows somehow that he is on his way home.
I plan to be there at 10 a.m. on Thursday, and I hope you will be, too.
It's our chance to say thank you and welcome back to Portales, Louie Long.
Betty Williamson gratefully tips her hat to all the boys of Bataan. Reach her at: