The etching on Pfc. Juan F. Gutierrez’s grave marker at Santa Fe National Cemetery attests to his life and service: He was born Sept. 29, 1916. He died Nov. 19, 1942. He served with the 200th Coast Artillery Regiment in World War II.
Here’s what else the U.S. Army knows about him: Captured by the Japanese after the surrender of American forces on the Bataan Peninsula in the Philippines in the spring of 1942, Gutierrez died the following November in a prisoner-of-war camp at Cabanatuan.
Based on Army records from that camp, he was buried with 13 other men in a mass grave in the area before his remains eventually were recovered and moved to the Santa Fe cemetery in April 1950.
But now the Army is questioning if it’s really Gutierrez’s remains that are buried here.
Earlier this week, the Army filed a petition in U.S. District Court in New Mexico, asking the court to “allow the disinterment of the remains previously identified as Private First Class Juan F. Gutierrez.”
Why? In a ramped up effort to recover and accurately identify the remains of deceased service members from five wars, including World War II, the Army has uncovered “substantial evidence” that it has some of Gutierrez’s remains in a Department of Defense laboratory.
That means that only some — or possibly none — of the bones in Gutierrez’s grave are actually his.
The court petition says the Army previously sought permission for the proposed disinterment from the Department of Veterans Affairs and the former director of Santa Fe National Cemetery, Jared Howard. The request was denied, the petition says, based on a regulation that requires approval from “all living immediate family members of the decedent.”
But that’s a problem because, according to the court petition, the Army could not find any living relatives of Gutierrez, who, based on a July 1943 Santa Fe New Mexican article, was the only son of Mr. and Mrs. Juan B. Gutierrez of Urioste Street. That was the month the United States Department of War informed the family the younger Gutierrez had died the previous November. The article said he had four sisters at the time: Ernestine, Mary, Mela and Rebecca.
It is unclear if any of those women are still living, but the Army could not locate them through either a genealogical search or by placing advertisements in local media outlets. So now, the Army is working through the courts to resolve the matter.
Gutierrez was one of several hundred New Mexicans who died at the Cabanatuan camp, said Christopher Schurtz, a Bataan historian from New Mexico who teaches American history at El Paso Community College in Texas.
Juan Gutierrez was 25 when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, which led the United States to join the war against Japan and Germany.
The Battle of Bataan, the first major military campaign of the Asian theater following that attack, took a huge toll on New Mexico. Of the 1,800-plus New Mexico soldiers who fought in that corner of the Philippines, only half survived. Many returned home physically, mentally and emotionally scarred after surviving the infamous, 65-mile Bataan Death March and subsequent incarceration in Japanese POW camps.
Many ended up in the camp at Cabanatuan on the island of Luzon, where Gutierrez died of either malnutrition or lack of medical care. He was buried by American prisoners in what the Army called Common Grave 717, according to the court document.
That burial process was common at Cabanatuan, Schurtz said. “At Cabanatuan, they were buried in this hard volcanic ground, and sometimes they could only dig down a foot,” he said.
Things got worse when American prisoners were ordered to dig those graves in rainy weather: “The bodies would float up top as they were shoveling dirt on them,” Schurtz said. “It was awful, nightmarish.”
Schurtz said it was left to those prisoners to remember where they had buried their comrades once the camp was liberated by American troops early in 1945, months before Japan surrendered.
“The soldiers had to keep mental track of where they buried their friends because the Japanese did not care,” Schurtz said. “Those guys did it all by memory. They had to piece it together — ‘I think he was buried over here by this tree.’ ”
In October 1946, based on dental records, the Army identified a set of skeletal remains from Common Grave 717 as Gutierrez’s, the petition says. Around that time, the Department of War was working to recover and identify soldiers’ remains and offering their family members the choice to have them buried overseas or returned home. A New Mexican article from April 26, 1950, reported the remains of 14 servicemen, including Gutierrez, were coming in by train to Lamy to be buried in Santa Fe National Cemetery.
But since then, Department of Defense analysts have come to the conclusion the skeletal remains of the 14 men in Common Grave 717 might have gotten mixed up because of “commingling” in the shallow grave.
What happens next remains unclear.
Debbie Van Hoose, acting director for Santa Fe National Cemetery, said in an email Thursday: “Per federal law, disinterment from a VA cemetery requires either a court order or the consent of all living immediate family members of the decedent. Since there is no court order and Pfc. Gutierrez does not have any known living family members, this is a matter that must be decided in court.”