Valdemar DeHerrera will turn 102 on Oct. 8th, making him one of the oldest surviving members of the Battle of Bataan. Born in Costilla in 1919 to Meliton and Lupita DeHerrera, Valdemar was one of 14 children who learned the value of a hard day’s work on a ranch at their homestead. He also spent three years and seven months as a prisoner of war in the Philippines during World War II.

DeHerrera said the values instilled in him at an early age in Costilla helped him get through the most intense experience of his life – the Battle of Bataan, and his ensuing capture that led to three years in a Japanese prison camp.

DeHerrera served as a member of the U.S. Army in WWII, when he ended up serving in the Battle of Bataan in the Philippines in 1942. He was one of approximately 1,800 New Mexicans who served alongside Filipino soldiers. Less than half of those New Mexicans made it home.

DeHerrera found himself among those lucky enough to return, and is currently one of around a dozen survivors of the Battle of Bataan.

DeHerrera didn’t have intentions of going to war. In fact, his first step away from his home was when he moved to Wyoming at the age of 17 for work. Shortly after his move north, he found himself facing a draft letter from the Army.

After being transferred to Fort Bliss for official training at the age of 22, DeHerrerea was transferred to New Mexico National Guard due to a lack of service members, where he found himself quickly shipped off the the Philippines to fight against a previously unknown enemy. What began as a National Guard training mission overseas quickly turned into something far more sinister.

Just months after DeHerrera had landed in the Philippines, he quickly saw his training duties become manifest. As the Japanese dropped bombs on Pearl Harbor, war was declared, and DeHerrera’s aim quickly changed to fighting the Japanese and other ‘Axis’ forces that existed in Asia at the time.

This began the three month Battle of Bataan, in which Filipino and American soldiers faced Japanese bombers, doing their best to stand their ground. Eventually, American and Filipino forces surrendered, leading to the infamous “Bataan Death March,” in which the captured soldiers were forced to walk and so many died. Around 600 American and 5,000 Filipino soldiers perished in the march.

DeHerrera was not one of those forced to march, however, and was among a small group of men who chose to stay and fight, even as they ran out of weapons and resources. While hiding in a bunker with several other soldiers, they were eventually found by Japanese forces and taken as prisoners of war.

DeHerrera said he was close to death twice during the ensuing years, but thanks to people he called his “guardian angels,” he survived. One was a Japanese commander who ordered for his men not to shoot DeHerrera and others; the other was a fellow soldier who carried DeHerrera when he couldn’t keep up during parts of smaller marches they were forced to do.

If what he had experienced so far seemed tough, it was nothing compared to the three years and seven months he was about to face in a prison camp, where he was malnourished, beaten and forced to do manual labor. It was his days growing up in Northern New Mexico that he said helped him through, and that knowing the value of hard work kept him going.

In February of 1945, Bataan was finally reclaimed by American and Filipino forces and DeHerrera was honorably discharged. He returned home to Costilla where many family members presumed him to be dead.

It was then that the happier side of DeHerrera’s life began, with a marriage to Consuelo “Connie” DeVargas in 1979. The couple started a family that has grown in size over the generations, with eight children, 18 grandchildren, and 28 great-grandchildren. Before Consuelo’s passing in 2019, the couple enjoyed spending their summers at their ranch in Costilla where they would work the land, and spending winters in Alamogordo, each year attending the Bataan Memorial Death March at White Sands.

During his postwar life, DeHerrera worked for the New Mexico Highway Department for three years before becoming the general foreman at Moly Corp Mine for the next 26 years.

With DeHerrera lie some of the last few original tales of the most infamous days of World War II.

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