Uplifting the Spirit using my voice & talent.


America has a fascination with the TV game show “Survivor,” but the courage, sacrifice, and heart of a true survivor is found in the real life story of Vicente Ruelas Ojinaga.  At 91 years old, Ojinaga has overcome a heart attack, cancer, the infamous Bataan Death March, a voyage on a Hell Ship, and years in a POW camp.  He didn’t just manage to live through these unimaginable hardships– with his faith in God, he thrived because of them.

After fellow POW Benjamin Martinez passed away last month, Ojinaga became the only survivor of the Bataan Death March still living in the city of Santa Fe according to the NM Department of Veterans’ Services. He was one of 1800 young men from New Mexico in the 200th Coast Artillery of the NM National Guard Army who were taken Prisoners of War by the Japanese.  Roughly 900 returned home.

That horrifying experience has been a big part of Ojinaga’s life, but it isn’t all that defines this amazing man.  He graduated from UNM, then worked for the IRS and the New Mexico Department of Taxation and Revenue.  His wife Celia says he has always served the community… as Treasurer of the Knights of Columbus and the Neighborhood Association; he was a member of Toastmasters; and a devout member of his church.  She says his greatest strength is his love of God and family.

Vicente has been married to Celia for 61 years.  They have five children: Richard, Teresa, John, Corky, and Sammy; 13 grandchildren, and six great grandchildren.

As we observe Veteran’s Day on November 11th, we are so grateful for the sacrifices made by Vicente Ojinaga and everyone else who has answered the call to serve our country.  Let us never forget.

1.  (After the simultaneous attacks of Pearl Harbor and Clark Field in December 1941, Americans valiantly fought off the Japanese in the Philippines.  Despite several victories during those four long months, their ammunition and food diminished.  American troops were forced to surrender on April 9, 1942.)

Carla:  You and your fellow soldiers from the 200th Coast Artillery wanted to keep fighting.  What happened?

Vicente: “That’s right and then (Major) General King was the one who came over and told us that he had surrendered us.  We told him, ‘we don’t want to surrender, we still have ammunition…extra ammunition in our rifles, let’s keep fighting.’  And he said no, because we would be wiped out. There were too many (Japanese) at that time, you know.  We had to follow orders.”

2.  (About 11,000 American and Filipino troops died while trying to make the 75-mile Bataan Death March in scorching heat with no food or water.  The survivors were crammed into Hell Ships that set course for Japan where they were eventually kept in prison camps.  As a Prisoner of War, Vicente was hit on the knees with the butt of a rifle, suffered from malaria and dengue fever, worked as slave labor in a Japanese mine, and forced to bury the dead.)

Carla: Did you want to die sometimes?

Vincent: (Laughs) “No—I never did.  I just knew that eventually we’d make it.  I used to pray a lot.  They used to allow a chaplain to come over and give us a mass and I used to serve at the mass and go fix the altar there.  And then the guys that were Catholics would come over and the guys that were not Catholics would also come over. And they would have one guy that would pray the rosary every night.  So we would get together and pray the rosary.  And then the guys that didn’t have any religion, they would tell us, ‘Aren’t you guys going to pray the rosary?’  And I said, ‘why do you want us to pray the rosary?’ They figured that if the Lord was going to help us, he’s going to help them.”

3. Carla:  Days, weeks, and months turned into years.  How did you envision your captivity to play out?

Vicente: The only thing we used to say, it’s only a matter of time.  Because we knew we were going to whip them.  We knew our country is not going to let us down. They’re going to come in and they’re going to take over. So we never worried about it.

(Ojinaga’s ordeal ended after the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.  He says he knew something was happening because the constant firebombing by American B-29s over Japan had stopped.  Newspapers he got from the Dutch prisoners confirmed his suspicions.)  Vicente: “So many planes bombed Japan.  Only one plane was seen over Japan.  We said, ‘we got a secret weapon.’  We knew that.  Everyone said that we got a secret weapon…why only one plane?  And then in the newspaper, thousands had died.  And the Japanese knew that if they didn’t give up, they’d die.  So we knew the end was close.  We knew that we were coming home, baby.”

4.  (Vicente spent almost three and a half years as a Prisoner of War.  When he got home to Santa Rita, New Mexico, his mother made him wait before the celebration could begin.)

Carla:  What did your mother do when you got off the bus?

Vicente: My mother said, ‘The first place you’re going is to church.  We are giving thanks.’  She got me to take me to the altar.  She got on her knees from the hall and crawled all the way to the church.  Along the way, people would sweep, remove rocks from her path, and throw rugs to make it easier for her.   She was on her knees all the way to the altar.   She took me by the hand, and we gave thanks to God.”

5.  Carla:  Many people consider you a hero.  Do you feel like a hero?

Vicente: “It just makes me feel grateful that they recognize what we have done, what I have done.  Like, they had a Vincent Ojinaga day here in the city and county.  In fact, some people that I meet– when I have my cap– they come and shake hands and thank me.  And I’m surprised at the number of people who come over and shake my hand.  One lady even kissed me.  She told her husband, ‘Come here and shake hands with a hero.’  They pay for our meals.”

Carla:  Do you ever get tired of talking about it?

Vicente: “No, because they want to know what happened.”

Author’s Notes:

* Santa Fe Bataan Death March Survivor, Benjamin E. Martinez, passed away on October 17, 2009 at the age of 92.

* The mining town of Santa Rita, NM was near Silver City.  It no longer exists.

* Additional information was taken from “Silent Voices of World War II” by Nancy Bartlit and Everett M. Rogers


October 31, 2009 - Posted by | Santa Fe Hometown News, Vicente Ruelas Ojinaga |

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