Los Lunas

A New Mexico family recently banded together to pay tribute to the beloved brother they lost long ago in World War II.

Angela Lawrence, Meliton “Milton” Gonzales and Zella Alderete received medals at the Baatan Memorial in Santa Fe in honor of their brother, Reynaldo F. Gonzales, who died in the Baatan Death March.

The April 9 ceremony marked the 60th anniversary of the Death March, which followed the 1942 surrender of U.S. forces in the Philippines.

Thousands of soldiers died of disease, starvation and brutality at the hands of their captors along the terrible journey.

Reynaldo “Rey” Gonzales was one of five people executed five days after the U.S. surrendered to the Japanese, his family recalls. He was two weeks shy of his 31st birthday.

The soldier and his brother, Tony, were among the handful of boys from Lemitar, N.M., who were killed in World War II. There is a memorial built at the Lemitar cemetary honoring the fallen heroes: the Gonzales brothers, Jack Hawk Miller, Severo Montaño and Lorenzo Lopez.

“There weren’t even 150 people living in Lemitar at the time,” Rey’s sister, Zella, remembers.

The son of a grocery store owner and farmer, Rey rented a place in Socorro, where he attended high school. His mom would come from Lemitar every Sunday evening and stay the whole week with her son.

Rey, a graduate of Socorro High School and New Mexico State University, later became an agent for the Valencia County extension office in the 1930s.

The young man married and was a member of the 200th Coastal Artillery that left from Taos for Fort Bliss. From there, Rey traveled to the Philippines before the war started in 1941.

Rey’s sister, Angela, who still lives in Los Lunas today, was working at the extension office when the announcement was made that the war had started.

“I remember our Mom was on her way to Albuquerque,” Angela says, in a soft voice. “She was crying and stopped to see me in Los Lunas. We weren’t aware of what was about to happen when Rey left. He was already in the Philippines.”

Their mother still has the letters and cards her son wrote during the war. She kept them all.

Among the large family of six, Rey’s brother, Tony, was 27 when he was killed at the Battle of the Bulge, just six months after D-Day.

Brother Milton was in North Africa working with an engineering group. He served until 1944, and, when the war ended there, he was sent to Hawaii.

It was there that Milton got the news that his two brothers had been killed serving their country. Rey was listed as “missing in action” until the end of the war.

“The policy was that the remaining brother would be sent home,” Milton whispered, with tears in his eyes.

It wasn’t easy for Milton to go back to New Mexico.

Today, it remains difficult for Milton and his sisters to discuss the events leading up to Rey’s death. Zella recounts the story of the 60-mile march, but the exact details of what happened at McDonald Field are uncertain.

It has been said Japanese officers stopped their truck and let the American soldiers get down to buy something to eat from the store. The officers later searched the men and found Japanese coins in their pockets, so they executed them.

“These are just stories,” Zella says. “My father tried to find out exactly what happened to Rey. Later, one of the men who was there became a sheriff in Soco-rro. He said he dropped his coins and stomped on them before the Japanese could find them.”

“Some things I don’t want to remember. It’s not a good thing,” Milton says. “I don’t believe they were that kind.”

Now, years later, the family remembers their brothers with immense love. “Tony was the daredevil type,” Angela says. “I remember, during the floods of ’29, he used to take us riding on a boat through the water for fun. He used to drive his motorcycle from Lemitar to Las Cruces.

“Rey was an angel … quiet and kind. He was our mentor. He was always helping us with our studies and lessons.”

The experience in Santa Fe earlier this month was extremely emotional for the family to see Rey honored after all these years. “The flag triggers emotion. To hear the speeches and the crying is very hard,” Milton says. “We got to see the ones who survived. They had to be very strong to have lived through what went on in the war.”

Memories of their brothers will never leave them. The medals and pins awarded to Rey 60 years after his death are a symbolic tribute to their brother.

“It was wonderful. We think about Rey every day. He would be very proud of these medals,” Milton said.

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Jennifer Harmon