Bataan veteran Bill Overmier and his wife Ann are greeted by Gov. Susana Martinez before the start of a commemorative ceremony for the 76th anniversary of the fall of Bataan, in the Phillipines during World War II. The event took place Monday in Santa Fe. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

SANTA FE — Bill Overmier doesn’t want people to forget what he and thousands of others went through.

During World War II, the Albuquerque resident and National Guard veteran spent three-and-a half years as a prisoner in Yokohama, Japan. He built warships there after being liberated from Corregidor, an island off the Bataan Peninsula in the Phillipines.

On Monday, Overmeir was the only Bataan veteran present at the annual ceremony in Santa Fe commemorating the fall of the peninsula and the deadly Bataan Death March that followed in 1942.

About 1,800 New Mexican National Guardsmen helped fight the Japanese for four months while stationed in the Phillippines. After the fall of Bataan, more than 75,000 U.S. and Filipino soldiers were forced to walk 65 miles to prison camps in what is now known as the death march. Hundreds of Americans and thousands of Filipinos died during the forced march.

Sgt. Matt Jenkins, left, with the New Mexico Army National Guard, and Senior Airman Simone Cremeans, with the U.S. Air Force, take down the white flag near the end of the Bataan commemorative ceremony. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Overmier, who turned 98 this year and attended the ceremony alongside his wife, Ann, describes attending memorial events like Monday’s as an emotional experience, but something he still does because he likes engaging with people who can relate to his experience.

“I like to meet people who have gone through the same thing I have,” said Overmier at the Bataan Memorial, a block or so from the state Capitol.

If they had similar experiences overseas, “We’ve got something in common.” he said. “And that’s what is important.”

Including Overmier, about 900 of the 1,800 New Mexicans who fought over Bataan returned home after being taken prisoner. Today, about 11 survivors remain.

Though Overmeir was the only survivor present Monday, the family members of about a dozen veterans attended the ceremony. Three Bataan veterans who died in the past year were also honored: Trinidad Martinez, Pedro Gonzales Jr. and Julio T. Barela.

“It’s certainly no accident that you survived and are here with us today,” New Mexico National Guard Adjutant General Kenneth Nava said to Overmier during the ceremony.

“God had a plan for you. Part of that plan was to help shape and mold the current generations of the New Mexico National Guard, myself included. Part of that plan was to remind us how precious the freedom we enjoy really is.”

The “tremendous suffering” of the Bataan veterans reminds everyone that freedom is not free, Gov. Susana Martinez said as the keynote speaker.

“We will never treat their sacrifices lightly and we will always, always remember them,” she said.

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