August memories

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Not a big month for celebrations in NM

By Jay Miller

SANTA FE — August holds no holidays for New Mexicans. Heck, even members of the U.S. House of Representatives have to give up their traditional August recess to work on the ambitious agenda of Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

But August has many days to remember, especially for New Mexicans. We just don’t celebrate them because they’re all tinged with some bad memories.

Every elementary school child knows Christopher Columbus arrived in the New World on October 12, 1492. But he set sail on August 3 of that year.

They still are teaching elementary students that Columbus was the guy who figured out the world is round. But we have learned over the years that when he set sail, he had no doubt he wasn’t going to fall off the edge of the earth.

Many people already knew the world was round and some even knew others had already explored new lands to the west. The only question was how far west.

It was August 1598 when Juan de Onate and his colonists reached Northern New Mexico.

It was August 10, 1680 when the Pueblos, with the help of Apaches, decided they didn’t like Spanish rule. Some 400 colonists and 21 Franciscan missionaries were killed.

The rest fled down the Rio Grande to south of El Paso. It is said to be the first and only instance of Native Americans overthrowing their conquerors.

It was August 1846 when U.S. troops, under the command of Gen. Stephen Watts Kearny, invaded New Mexico. On August 22, Kearny declared all residents to be American citizens.

On August 6 and 9, Little Boy and Fat Man were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, assuring a quick end to the war. The dates are not celebrated in the United States. They are mourned by the Japanese and American peace activists.

At the time, it seemed to our leaders like the thing to do. High school graduates were being drafted and quickly sent to the Pacific to prepare for a land invasion expected to take a million lives.

Scientists and engineers from Los Alamos were sent to the island of Tinian in the Northern Marianas, near Guam and Saipan, to prepare the bombs and the modified B-29s that would carry them.

We knew that American prisoners held in Japan, including 900 members of the New Mexico National Guard, would be shot as soon as a land invasion commenced. But when the two big ones dropped, prison guards throughout Japan ran for their homes and never returned.

Even before the two bombs dropped, Japan had been making efforts toward ending the war. But there were still holdouts in the Japanese high command that either wanted to fight to the end or to bargain for keeping the lands they had taken.

The bombs hastened the decision to surrender. Six days after the second bomb was dropped, Japan surrendered. It was high noon, August 15 in Tokyo and 6 p.m. the day before in Washington, D.C.

There was great rejoicing nationwide. Next to the photo of the Iwo Jima flag raising, the picture of a sailor sweeping a nurse off her feet on Times Square is probably the most beloved in American history. I was a seven-year-old in Las Cruces watching the celebrating.

But the yearly celebrations didn’t last. Although the bombs killed no more than our nightly saturation bombings of Japanese cities, the radiation deaths and illnesses that followed insured that nuclear devices have not been used in warfare since.

August also is the anniversary of New Mexico native Smokey Bear being adopted as our national forest fire prevention symbol in 1944. Even Smokey had a war connection.

All our able-bodied men were fighting elsewhere. And Japan was tying small bombs to gas balloons and launching them into the winds headed for our West Coast forests. Some of them made it. So the American public was alerted to fight forest fires.

Jay Miller is a syndicated columnist in Santa Fe.