AUGUSTA — Don Lucero left the Philippines in 1945 with a chest full of medals and a head full of horror stories.

A survivor of the infamous Bataan Death March and three prison escapes, Lucero once stood in front of a firing squad and lived to tell about it.

The medals disappeared over the years, along with many of the memories, as the World War II veteran moved on and made a life and family back home in the U.S.

Some of those memories came back to Lucero on Friday, his 92nd birthday, when he was presented a Bronze Star for his heroism.

“It’s men like you who make all of us, especially those of us in uniform, so proud to be a part of this country,” Brigadier Gen. James D. Campbell, adjutant general of the Maine National Guard, told Lucero during a ceremony Friday at the State House Hall of Flags. “I want to personally thank you. You make me proud to be an American. You make me proud to wear this uniform.”

Lucero, who has lived the past 20-plus years on Church Hill Road in Augusta, was presented with the Bronze Star for bravery, the Purple Heart for suffering injury and the New Mexico Bataan Service Medal, which the state created for every member of the New Mexico National Guard’s 200th Coast Artillery Regiment.

Campbell said efforts were underway to replace other medals due to Lucero, including a Prisoner of War Medal, Distinguished Unit Citation and a World War II Victory Medal.

Lucero was just 20 years old in September 1941 when he and 1,800 men of the 200th left New Mexico for the Philippines. Japanese bombers arrived at the islands three months later.

American and Filipino troops fought the Japanese for months despite massive supply shortages. The Japanese pushed American and Filipino forces down the Bataan peninsula and finally broke through the lines in April 1942. The Japanese forced the surrendered troops to march 65 miles with no food or water to confinement camps throughout the Philippines. Those who tried to steal a sip of water from roadside streams, who or collapsed along the way, were immediately shot or run through with a bayonet.

About 1,000 Americans, and 9,000 Filipinos, died during the march.

Those who survived spent the next 40 months as prisoners of war under severe conditions that included little food, routine beatings and disease.

Lucero escaped shortly after arriving at the camp, but he was recaptured and returned to the camp only to escape once more. The second time the Japanese guards put Lucero in front of a firing squad.

“Why I wasn’t shot, I don’t know,” he said. “They worked me over.”

Lucero said he knew his captors were going to kill him, so he determined he would run again if he got a chance. That opportunity came one night when he was guarded by a single Japanese soldier who began to feel sorry for Lucero.

He loosened the shackles that bound the prisoner.

“He got careless with his rifle, so I took the chance,” Lucero said.

He shot the guard and fled into the jungle, where he met up with guerillas, alongside whom he continued to fight the Japanese. He also met his first wife, a woman who cared for the resisting soldiers. His wife returned to the United States with Lucero before eventually going back to the Philippines.

The medals Lucero earned got lost in a series of moves to Nevada, California and, eventually, Maine.

“When I came back to the states, I didn’t want anything to do with the Army,” Lucero said. “I wanted to get on with my civilian life.”

Lucero, one of just six surviving members of the 200th, was supposed to receive his medals in April when he traveled to New Mexico for the reunion of the Battling Bastards of Bataan. Health concerns prevented Lucero from making the trip, according to his son-in-law, Steven Salazar, of Chelsea.

Salazar, who works at The Home Depot, told Lucero’s story to Birdie Katz, wife of Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, when she visited the store several weeks ago. Birdie Katz gave Salazar her husband’s number and suggested he call to see whether the medals might be shipped to Maine.

The events culminated in Friday’s ceremony, which also happened to be Lucero’s birthday.

“I’ve been to a lot of birthday parties in my life, but I think this is the most significant one,” Roger Katz said.

He said he has driven on Church Hill Road countless times without knowing Lucero or his role in a significant event in history.

“I never knew living on that road, in my very own town, was a genuine hero,” Katz said. “You make us proud to be Americans.”

Craig Crosby — 621-5642
[email protected]

 

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