Joe Romero was treated like royalty when he entered the Visitor’s Center of the New Mexico Veterans Memorial on Saturday by the throngs of people who gathered to welcome him.

He was finally getting his medals awarded from World War II as a survivor of the Bataan Death March. Romero was part of the New Mexico National Guard when Bataan fell and he was captured. He joined the National Guard in 1941 and was deployed to the Philippines as part of the 200th Coast Artillery Regiment. Soon after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, they invaded the Philippines and Romero was in combat from December 1941 until the garrison surrendered in April 1942.

The survivors were forced to march between 60-70 miles to a POW camp. Between 5-10,000 Filipinos and 500-650 Americans died or were executed during the forced march which became known as the Bataan Death March.

“As long as there is a New Mexico National Guard, these men will never be forgotten,” said New Mexico National Guard Adjutant General Kenneth Nava. “We will never forget their sacrifices.”

Nava pinned medal after medal — including a Bronze Star for meritorious achievement in combat — to Romero’s chest, as many in the watching crowd shed tears.

Though almost 97 years old, wheelchair bound and unable to speak, Romero still has a sparkle in his eye and it was clear he understood and appreciated all that was happening.

Romero and his younger brother Frank survived the march and 42 months in captivity. He was forced to work in a lead and zinc mine and served on a burial detail for those who died.

Romero’s daughter and New Mexico Department of Veterans Services Cabinet Secretary Jack Fox were able to push through the paperwork to honor Romero who turned 97 years old on Tuesday.

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Photo courtesy Wikipedia