Just hours after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, some 1,800 soldiers assigned to New Mexico’s 200th Coast Artillery Regiment in the Philippines were among the first to defend the then-U.S. territory from an invasion by the Japanese Imperial Army.

What came next for the troops is almost unspeakable: months of unrelenting combat, a 65-mile death march and, for survivors, three years of gruesome imprisonment.

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Seventy-seven years later, these heroes have still not received the recognition they deserve. Too few returned home after the war, and with each passing year, even fewer remain to tell their harrowing and heroic stories. We must honor these heroes – before it is too late. 

Their story is one of bravery and perseverance. Beginning on Dec. 8, 1941, Japanese forces began bombing airfields on the main Philippine island of Luzon. Badly outmanned and out-gunned American and Filipino troops mounted a courageous defense of the Bataan peninsula and the island of Corregidor, but constant attacks and the lack of ammunition, reinforcements, food and disease took a heavy toll. Bataan fell on April 9, followed by Corregidor on May 6.

Immediately following the fall of Bataan, some 12,000 American and 64,000 Filipino troops were forced-marched 65 miles in the heat without food, water or medical care – in what will be forever known as the Bataan Death March. Thousands of soldiers died from lack of food, medical care, exhaustion, and beatings and executions at the hands of their captors. Survivors of the march were held captive in the Philippines for over three years – and subjected to malnourishment and torture. Others were transported to Japanese prison camps by way of “hell ships,” on which many died. Still, some fought on in the jungles and islands of the Philippines using guerilla warfare to weaken the Japanese throughout the remainder of the war.

One-third of Bataan's American defenders never made it home, and those who did survive suffered for the rest of their lives with physical and mental reminders of what they had endured.

We cannot repay the debt that we owe these heroes. But we can – and we should – honor their sacrifice and the courage of their actions with action of our own. For years, we have worked to award these veterans with the Congressional Gold Medal, Congress’s highest recognition of appreciation – but we have yet to get the award over the finish line. This month, a bill will once again be introduced to award the medal to the troops who defended the Philippines during the opening salvos of World War II in the Pacific. And it will have the full support of our nation’s largest and oldest major war veterans’ organization, the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States.

The servicemen and women who bravely defended the Philippines and suffered unimaginable hardships in captivity came from all over the United States. The 200th regiment, and also the 515th, were largely comprised of Hispanic Americans from New Mexico, Texas, and Arizona. They were sent to the Philippines because they could speak Spanish and communicate with our Filipino allies. The heroes at Bataan embodied the diversity of our nation, and their indomitable will continues to represent the essence of this great country.

Recognizing the courage and sacrifice of Bataan and Corregidor defenders is long overdue. Even after 77 years, we still have an opportunity to make this right for the few survivors who remain, and to honor the memory of those who have since passed.

But we must act fast.

Udall is the senior senator from New Mexico. B.J. Lawrence is Commander-in-Chief of VFW.