In tribute: Clovis Bataan survivor never passed up chance to go out

Courtesy photo Buren Johnston, left, and Lee Roach at a monument in Albuquerque’s Bataan Memorial Park. Johnston and Roach were two of 89 men from Curry County who survived the Bataan Death March. Roach died Thursday. Johnston is believed to be the only remaining Bataan survivor still living in Clovis.

Kevin Wilson

Thousands of American troops died during the Bataan Death March. Lee Roach of Clovis survived, and family members said he lived the rest of his life as if he was making up for lost time.

Roach, who survived more than three years as a prisoner of war, died Thursday in Farwell of failing health. He was 92.

“We’ve always had a deep respect for him,” son Gerryl Roach said.

Born Nov. 27, 1918, in Field, Roach was remembered by his family as a caring man who was almost claustrophobic and never passed up a chance to go out, whether it was out to a local eatery for coffee or the annual trip to Branson, Mo.

“These walls just closed in on him,” his wife, Una Roach said. “He wasn’t one to stay home; he was always ready to go.”

Roach lived a respectable life as a heating shop repairman, but was best known for his connection to a years-long nightmare of war.

Just three months after he finished basic training, Roach joined the U.S. Army’s 200th Coast Artillery at Nickels Field in the Philippines.

Having lost the ability to fight an air war, many American forces withdrew with their Philippine allies and a number of civilians to the Bataan Peninsula.

With a decimated Pacific Fleet, American forces couldn’t get new supplies. On April 9, 1942, with only two days of food left for his troops and facing an imminent Japanese assault, the American general commanding Bataan surrendered. Japanese soldiers began rounding up the Americans and Filipinos in small groups and marched about 100,000 malnourished and diseased men 55 miles to a railroad station.

“I don’t think it was the march that killed all the people, but the lack of food and water,” Roach told the CNJ in 2004. “If you couldn’t keep up, they would just bayonet you right there and leave you to rot in the barrow ditch.”

Roach and others worked for three years as forced laborers for the Japanese; long, hard days with minimal food and water.

“He always said the reason he got home,” sister-in-law Eunice Roach said, “was the Lord brought him home.”

Some 89 Clovis natives who were part of the Bataan Death March. With Roach’s death, Buren Johnston is believed to be the only survivor living in Clovis. Jack Aldrich lives in Roswell and Melvin Waldmon lives in Texas.

Johnston said he met Roach in the Army, and they mostly saw each other at ceremonies and when advocacy was sought. In 2009, they joined former Clovis Mayor James Moss in an effort to ask the Clovis Municipal Schools to attach “Bataan Memorial Middle School” to a future campus.

“He was really nice to be around, be in the service with,” Johnston said. “We’ve done a lot of things with a lot of different (organizations) since the war has been over.”

Though Lee never talked about the march unless he was directly asked, his sons said he didn’t shy away from details and never seemed to harbor resentment about what happened.

Instead, he set out to enjoy creating a life. Una had known of him before, since her older sister Eunice was dating Lee’s older brother, Roy Roach.

“We were at a softball game at Ranchvale,” Una said. “I came to Clovis with him on his motorcycle, and it just went from there.”

The couples dated together, and were married in a double ceremony in May of 1946.

When the family could travel, they would. From camping in Colorado, to El Paso and Mexico visits, to motorcycle trips across the state, Gerryl said his father never passed up the chance to travel.

Lee loved old-time country music, Una said. The family went to Branson for 23 consecutive Octobers, and the Floyd Country Jamboree quickly became one of his favorite area events.

His favorite things to do, however, became any activity involving his children, his four grandchildren and his 10 great-grandchildren.

Services are scheduled for 10 a.m. Monday at First Baptist Church, where he was a member since 1948. His family was happy and relieved to learn Friday afternoon he would receive military honors at his service, with Army representatives coming from around the state.

“I always had the utmost respect for him,” son Darryl Roach said. “He wasn’t just my dad, he was my friend.”