Commemorating a Filipino family’s connection to New Mexico and World War II

This Memorial Day — and during Asian American, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander Heritage Month — Cynthia Fuentes shares her family’s story of service

May 21, 2024

Left: Cynthia Fuentes and her father, Adeste, circa 1995 Right: Adeste Fuentes and his father, Maximo, circa 1975.

Cynthia Fuentes, the team leader of Los Alamos National Laboratory’s Protocol group, shares a profound—and humbling—story connecting her Filipino family’s history, New Mexico, the Bataan Death March and World War II.

The invasion of the Philippines started on Dec. 8, 1941, 10 hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The Japanese soon overran much of Southwest Asia and, in January 1942, invaded Luzon, Philippines. American and Filipino troops fought valiantly for three months but eventually surrendered. What happened next became an infamous moment in American military history. After their surrender, about 78,000 prisoners — including 12,000 U.S. and 66,000 Filipino prisoners — took part in a harrowing journey that became known as the Bataan Death March.

Forced to walk roughly 65 miles north from the southern end of the Bataan peninsula to a railhead, where they would be transferred to confinement camps throughout the Philippines, the POWs suffered brutal treatment by their captors and difficult tropical conditions, such as excessive heat, humidity and rain. Thousands died on the march from wounds sustained in battle or from dehydration, while others were executed by their captors enroute. The surviving prisoners were rescued in early 1945, when the Allies retook the Philippines.

Some might be surprised to learn that New Mexico is intimately connected to that tragic event on an archipelago nearly 8,000 miles away.

The Old Santa Fe Armory was the second armory built in Santa Fe and served as New Mexico’s induction center during WWII. It became the home of Battery C of the 200th Coast Artillery, which played a major role in the defense of the Philippines and was part of the Bataan Death March. Approximately 1,800 men from the 200th and 515th Coast Artillery Regiment — also known as the “New Mexico Brigade”—were deployed to the Philippines in September 1941.

Today, the armory is the New Mexico Military Museum, displaying artifacts and history of the Bataan Death March, which claimed the lives of approximately 17,000 American and Filipino soldiers, including 900 from New Mexico.

Cynthia’s grandfather’s story

Cynthia Fuentes’ paternal grandfather, Maximo Dizon Fuentes, circa 1940.

Cynthia’s late paternal grandfather, Maximo Dizon Fuentes, who was born and raised in the Philippines, was one of those 78,000 POWs forced to take part in the Bataan Death March.

Maximo first joined the U.S. Navy in January 1917 during World War I at the age of 16. According to Cynthia’s father, upon recruitment, all Filipinos were automatically classified as “stewards,” or, in Maximo’s case, a mess attendant 3rd class, before he became a hospital apprentice. “This was a major accomplishment during those times,” Cynthia’s father told her. It was rare for Filipino citizens to break away from the steward or cook career path when joining the U.S. military.

During World War II, Maximo survived not only the Bataan Death March, but also the Battle of Corregidor island, a strategic military bastion that protected the natural harbor of Manila Bay. As a POW, he was kept alive by the Japanese because of his medical background, and he was deemed valuable as a field medic, eventually acting in place of a military doctor supporting the American POWs. For a while, he was listed as missing in action.

An article from Hospital Corps Quarterly, January 1945, stating that Maximo Fuentes was still on the MIA list.

Although Maximo’s World War II service was known to the family, what hadn’t been known until recently was a letter her wrote to chairman of Veterans Affairs in California. In the undated and unfinished letter, Maximo wrote about his experiences in Bataan and Corregidor, and told the chairman that his superior officers intended to recommend him for the Congressional Medal of Honor, but they died the concentration camps. The letter, written in English, which was not Maximo’s native language, was discovered in February 2023 at their family’s property in the Philippines in February 2023.

Pages 1 and 4 of an unfinished letter found in Cynthia’s family property in Cavite City, Philippines, in February 2023, written by Maximo Fuentes and addressed to Veterans Affairs in California.

“It makes me think of what might have been different if he was able to actually send that letter,” said Cynthia. “Was he interrupted by an emergency? Did he actively choose not to pursue sending it? How many Filipino soldiers may have had a similar experience? What if his superiors’ recommendation for a medal was actually submitted? We may never know.”

Memorial Day—and an important heritage month

Cynthia chose Asian American, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander Heritage Month and Memorial Day to share her grandfather’s story. She thought it especially important given the tie between New Mexico and the Bataan Death March. Cynthia, who is originally from California, said, “Out of all the places I could have worked, here I am now, with this reverent connection to my family and my culture’s history,” she said.

Cynthia started working at the Laboratory 14 years ago as a student and has worked in cross-disciplinary areas across the Lab. Today she interacts with high-level elected and appointed officials, foreign delegations and dignitaries, and military and government officials who visit the Lab. This has allowed her to reflect even more on her family members’ service in the U.S. military and immigration to the states.

The month of May provides a time to reflect upon and celebrate the poignant role of the AANHPI community in U.S. history — including Cynthia’s family. Her father and three of his brothers also served in the U.S. military, as well as Cynthia’s maternal grandfather and three cousins.

Another connection to World War II is Cynthia’s maternal great-grandmother, who was working on a pineapple plantation in Oahu, Hawaii, on December 6, 1941, when she saw the Japanese planes flying overhead toward Pearl Harbor. “[That story] also brings me chills,” said Cynthia.

Maximo passed away a couple of years before Cynthia was born. Her grandmother, Carolina Fuentes (Maximo’s wife), is still alive and will celebrate her 101st birthday this Memorial Day weekend. Carolina also provided unheralded service in World War II as a message typist for the underground guerilla movement, the Philippine resistance.

Cynthia Fuentes with her grandmother, Carolina Fuentes, and son, Ethan Sandin.

“I extend my gratitude and respect to the countless Lab employees who have served or know others who have served in our military,” said Cynthia. “This weekend, we honor and pay tribute to those who come from all walks of life — all cultures and backgrounds — and have given the ultimate sacrifice while defending their country.”


Bataan Death March
National Museum of the United States Air Force
The National WWII Museum - New Orleans
New Mexico & The Bataan Death March
Taos County Historical Society