Valdemar DeHerrera, who turned 100 years old Tuesday, attends the Bataan Memorial March at White Sands Missile Range each year. Courtesy photo
Valdemar DeHerrera and his late wife Connie, posed for a photo prior to Connie’s passing in August, along with daughter Pam and her husband, Lloyd and granddaughter Jaclyn Ortega and Jerome Grant. Courtesy photo
Valdemar DeHerrera celebrates his 100th birthday Tuesday. Courtesy photo
Valdemar DeHerrera, an American hero, celebrates his 100th birthday.
Valdemar DeHerrera was born Oct. 8, 1919 in Costilla, New Mexico, to Meliton and Lupita DeHerrera. He was the fourth of 14 children to be born into his family. Growing up in Costilla with such a big family, he was raised to help his parents on the ranch and work the land where he learned hard work at a very young age – a trait he credits with helping him through one of the toughest trials of his life.
Valdemar attended school until the 10th grade when he dropped out to work for the CCD public works; a program designed for 17 to 25 year olds to do much needed hard labor work in the county and state.
Soon after, with much interest and his father’s blessing he left to work in Wyoming. While in Wyoming, Valdemar received a letter that changed the course of his life and lives of many other men. He was being drafted into the Army. On the advice of his employer, Valdemar returned to New Mexico to be drafted from his home state. After several physical exams he was called to report for duty in Santa Fe at the age of 22, where he would be loaded up and sent to Fort Bliss for boot camp and training for the Army.
At Fort Bliss, because of a shortage of men available, he was transferred into the New Mexico National Guard of Albuquerque, Unit Battalion A. The Guard Unit was soon sent to do what was suppose to be a 18-month training in the Philippines. While there, the unit was divided into two artillery groups, Valdemar was part of the 515 Coastal Artillery.
Valdemar went with much excitement to get to travel and see the world, not knowing his journey there would be a long and hard road. Soon after arriving in the Philippines for their training, the bombing of Pearl Harbor took place, starting WWII. Before the news of Pearl Harbor even reached the Philippines, Valdemar recalls the day he was standing in line with his aluminum plate to eat when he heard the sound of air planes approaching. Many men were claiming it was American planes but Valdemar knew different.
The planes were in fact Japanese bombers that began attacking the men with bombs and gun fire. A full force fight was now rampant between the American and Filipinos fighting against the Japanese. For the next three months Valdemar and his comrades continued fighting with very few resources and old, outdated gear and weapons which were of little use to them. But it did not deter them. On April 9, 1942 Major General King surrendered the island of Bataan and some 75,000 American and Filipino defenders.
The surrender led up to what is known as the Bataan Death March which killed a reported 600 American and 5,000 Filipino soldiers alone. Valdemar would be one of many soldiers who choose not to surrender and to retreat to the island of Corregidor, not having to endure the 60 mile march, but continuing to fight until all their resources including ammunition, guns, medicine, supplies and gear were gone or destroyed. All they had left was their bare fists to fight with. They were outnumbered and after about another month of fighting, Corregidor would finally fall.
Valdemar and a small group of man were hiding in a bunker when the Japanese soldiers found them. One particular solider went straight for Valdemar yelling, digging a gun deep into his chest ready to pull the trigger. Then after a moment, another Japanese guard intervened on Valdemar’s behalf. Valdemar calls this encounter his first guardian angel.
Though Valdemar did not take part in the infamous Death March he was subjected to several smaller marches and beatings, and saw many of his comrades killed. Because the Japanese were overwhelmed with the number of soldiers they had taken captive, many men were forced to walk everywhere they needed to get. During one of these treads Valdemar became increasingly weak and fell down. Before the Japanese could see him on the ground, where they would have ultimately killed him, a second guardian angel showed up in the form of a fellow soldier, who carried Valdemar for a period until he regained some strength.
Now in the hands of the enemy, Valdemar become a Prisoner of War for the next 3 years and 7 months. It was a brutal time of torture, malnourishment, sickness and hard labor work – all to stay alive in the hopes of returning home. During his time as a POW Valdemar was sent to a camp in Manchuria to work in a textile factory. One day while working he was chosen for a random beating from a Japanese solider, but overflowing with frustration Valdemar retaliated, knowing his actions could get him killed. He was then taken to a high ranking official who was to make a decision on his fate. It was another moment where a guardian angel showed him mercy and spared his life.
Valdemar’s childhood and knowledge of the New Mexico land helped in many ways while he was a POW. He remembers finding verdolagas growing there and eating them regularly. He also states working hard growing up helped him to maintain his strength during this time.
In February of 1945 Valdemar and many other men and women were liberated and Bataan was recaptured and back in the hands of Americans and Filipinos. With his family believing Valdemar was dead or missing in action reurned home frail, sick and a thin 80 pounds. Valdemar receive an Honorable Discharge from the Army in 1945.
It was many years before he began sharing his stories with family and many of those stories to this day he still keeps only to himself.
Valdemar has lived to be very successful, not allowing the course of his beginning to change the course of his future. Just like growing up, Valdemar was blessed with a big family. In 1949 he would marry Consuelo DeVargas from Taos. They were married for just short of 69 years when sadly Consuelo passed away Aug. 21. They had six daughters, one son, an adopted daughter, 18 grandchildren, 28 great-grandchildren and two great-great-grandchildren.
Valdemar’s career consisted of working for the highway department for three years and then ultimately working for and retiring from Moly Corp Mine after 26 years as a General Foreman. Even during his career he stuck to his roots and continued to farm together with his wife and family. Prior to Connie’s death they spent their time between Alamogordo, where during the winter where they attended the annual Bataan Memorial Death March at White Sands Missile Range. In the summers they spent their time at their ranch in Costilla. They enjoyed visiting the local casinos and restaurants but mostly spending time with family and friends.
Years have past, time goes on and changes take place, but Valdemar now 100 years old knows God had a purpose and plan for him, believing it is the reason he was allowed to survive the horrible trials of Bataan. It saddens him that many of his fellow soldiers, friends and neighbors did not have the same fate but he will try and honor them by sharing and remembering, “The Battling Bastards of Bataan, no mama no papa no uncle Sam. No aunts, no uncles, no cousins no nieces. No pills, no planes, no artillery pieces. And nobody gives a damn”
One of the most important things to Valdemar is to let the families of these soldiers who never made it home and those who have passed on since then, know that he does give damn.