Exhibit aims to keep alive memory of New Mexico’s WWI vets
It was supposed to be the war to end all wars, but for Andres S. Ribera, once a laborer at a hotel in Santa Fe, it seemed the first two days he spent in battle would never end.
Ribera, a 20-year-old who had enlisted in the New Mexico National Guard during World War I, found himself in combat within 13 days of arriving in France in late July 1918. He marched with his American comrades through mud as the rain continually fell, going without food and watching men around him fall to enemy shelling.
He was one of the lucky ones who came home several months later.
A century after the war’s end, Ribera’s story is told in a new book by Albuquerque writer David V. Holtby called Lest We Forget: World War I and New Mexico. Holtby also served as a consultant for a new museum exhibit in Santa Fe commemorating the 100th anniversary of the armistice that brought the war to a close and paying tribute to the many New Mexicans, like Ribera, who participated in the effort.
The New Mexico History Museum opened The First World War on Sunday. The exhibit, scheduled to be a permanent fixture in the museum, coincided with Veterans Day. It includes panels of text and photographs that paint a portrait of New Mexicans’ service in both the conflict and at home.
More than 81,000 New Mexicans registered for the war, though only some 9,050 were called to serve. Before they donned a uniform, many of the soldiers and sailors who served had worked as farmers, cowboys, railroad workers, waiters, schoolteachers and accountants, among other jobs.
More than 500 New Mexicans died during the conflict — half succumbing to illness such as influenza — while their mothers, wives, sisters and sweethearts contributed to the war effort back home, a place that had become a state just five years before war had been declared.
Many New Mexicans, Holtby said in an interview with The New Mexican, wanted to prove to their country that they would die for it.
“Statehood played an enormous role in our state’s participation in the war,” Holtby said. “We had the fifth-highest enlistment per capita in the country and that can be attributed to New Mexicans who said, ‘If we become citizens we will defend this country.’ They wanted to make it clear that this was a promise they would keep.”
Devorah Romanek, curator of exhibits at the University of New Mexico’s Maxwell Museum of Anthropology and a guest curator for the World War I exhibit, pointed out that at the time of the war, a wave of anti-Mexican and anti-immigration sentiment was taking root across America.
For New Mexicans, the drive to enlist in a new, primarily Hispanic state had a lot to do with “a new national identify and thus having something to prove,” Romanek said.
Holtby gives many first-person accounts in his book from those who lived to tell their stories. He includes Ribera’s recollections of marching in the rain one day toward the heavily defended hill in France known as Grimpettes Wood, where German forces had no intention of giving up their position.
The next day, Ribera wrote, he went “over the top,” as soldiers called the practice of leaving the trenches built for defense, to rush headlong into enemy machine gun fire. He watched as his two officers “did not even last half an hour after the battle started.”
Adding to the carnage, American artillery forces began firing on their own men, unaware their shells were falling short of the German positions.
Worse was to come: The Germans used mustard gas, which caused blisters, itching, diarrhea and blindness.
When Ribera woke up the next morning, he wrote, “I felt gas burns of mustard gas on my arm, legs, hips and other different parts of my body.”
He spent two months recovering in a hospital, and then, in mid-October 1918, was sent back to the front.
A month later, the guns of war fell silent.
Holtby’s book also tells the story of the Crockett brothers of Roswell, whose portraits are displayed in the museum exhibit.
Older brother Oren joined the Army, while younger sibling Paris joined the Navy. Oren earned a Distinguished Service Medal for his valor in combat with the 3rd Division in France in 1918, while Paris was assigned to a cargo ship. Both men — said to be distant relatives of Davy Crockett — survived the war, moved to California and lived long lives. They died in the 1980s.
And then there are the stories of New Mexico soldiers who didn’t come home.
Among them were the first two New Mexicans to die during the war: Pvt. Wilfred Waddell of Deming and Pvt. Farish Heath of Artesia. Both died in August 1917 — but not in combat. According to Holtby, they died of illness during a stateside National Guard summer training camp.
Cpl. August Chretien of Gallup is considered the first New Mexico serviceman to die in battle in France, according to Holtby, while Pvt. Jesse Cross, a 30-year-old rancher from Chaves County who was trained as a sniper, was gunned down by his own men who mistook him for a German.
His family received the usual formal government notice of his sacrifice: “Although your son was killed by accident, he was doing his duty in the front lines. … He died an honorable death.”
Many New Mexicans returned home as changed men, combat-torn veterans. Long before there were diagnoses and treatment of post traumatic stress disorder, they had to learn to cope with what they had seen and done in the war. Many of their recollections are included in Holtby’s book.
Some seem devoid of emotion: “A man back of me got a bullet through him just above the hips,” wrote Pvt. William Sibley of Deming. “He kept hollering for help.”
Cpl. Augustine Martinez of San Juan County recalled a firefight in the woods on the last day of the war, Nov. 11, 1918. Martinez watched as four men working with him in a five-person squad died under enemy fire. After he killed two Germans in the encounter, Martinez said, he saw four more getting away, “but I killed those, too.”
World War I confirmed America’s rise as a world power, redefined geographical boundaries and reduced Germany to a nation of defeat, forced by treaty to accept responsibility for the war and repay the world.
That led to an economic downturn and the rise of nationalism and fascism in Germany, fueling flames of hatred and a desire for world domination among some of Germany’s political and military leaders — including Adolf Hitler, who served as a corporal in the Bavarian forces during World War I.
But for New Mexicans who survived the war, little of that may have mattered by the early winter of 1918, when it was all over.
Their experiences exposed them to the horror of combat but also opened up the world for exploration, Romanek said.
“They came back and were very different because of suffering from what we now call PTSD and shell shock, but they were also exposed to places and people and languages they had never encountered before,” she said.
Still, 100 years later, with no formal World War I monument in the country — as there is for World War II, Vietnam and other conflicts — some worry that the contributions of these men, many of whom were buried overseas, will be forgotten once the centennial celebration passes.
Military historian and U.S. Army Capt. Gabriel Peterman, who serves as a logistics officer at the New Mexico National Guard base in Santa Fe, said, “We have the names of the men who died, but we don’t celebrate them. … It’s heartbreaking — we can’t even put a face to some of these names.”
Romanek wants the museum exhibit to help change that.
“I’m hoping this centennial anniversary and the exhibition will draw attention back to it so people can consider the complexity of New Mexico’s participation in a broader way,” she said.
“It’s easy for us to go back to World War II and our role in it — the Code Talkers, the Bataan Death March and Los Alamos and the creation of the atomic bomb,” Romanek said. “But as a state, our contribution to World War I was pivotal. We proved we could be part of America.”
If you go
What: The First World War, a new exhibit paying tribute to New Mexico’s contributions to World War I
Where: The New Mexico History Museum, 113 Lincoln Ave.
When: Open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday; closed Mondays
Cost: Admission is $7 for New Mexico residents and $12 for general admission; free to New Mexico residents 5 to 7 p.m. Fridays and the first Sunday of the month
Learn more: Call 505-476-5200 for more information.