Juan Gutierrez joined the US Army after the attack on Pearl Harbor, was captured by Japanese soldiers in the Philippines and died there as a prisoner of war.
Corpses and dates were jumbled in the fog, noise, and misery of World War II, and so many years later, it is mostly known that men like Gutierrez of Santa Fe suffered grave deaths.
Advances in remains identification over the past few years have shown that few of his remains were beneath a tombstone named Gutierrez in Santa Fe National Cemetery.
The science and persistence of the Defense POW / MIA Accounting Agency found more of Gutierrez’s skeletal remains in a tomb marked “Unknown” at the Manila American Cemetery and Memorial in the Philippines at least seven years ago. He is slated to be buried with relatives in a cemetery in Oakland, California next month.
His nephew, James “Jimmy” Vigil of Lemoore, Calif., Said it was important to his family to get it right. It is “a situation that my family does not take lightly,” Vigil said on Wednesday. “These things are important.”
Vigil, who is retired from the Navy but still works as a contractor at Naval Air Station Lemoore, California, said some of his uncle’s remains were exhumed from the Santa Fe Cemetery about a year ago with the permission of his family.
“We all met on Zoom to discuss this,” he said of family members.
He said experts discovered the remains of five to seven other soldiers mixed with the little Gutierrez in the coffin. Vigil said he understood that only the bones of his uncle’s arm and leg were found there.
Other families will “be able to complete this long, long mystery,” Vigil said.
The Department of Defense has made concerted efforts to find and identify the remains of soldiers from wars in which the United States was involved. The department created the Defense POW / MIA Accounting Agency in 2015 from the merger of two other entities.
Sgt. 1st Class Sean Everette of that agency wrote in an email Wednesday that his organization and its predecessor agencies have identified the remains of 3,283 American service members, including 1,469 from World War II.
The agency reported that Gutierrez was a member of the 200th Coastal Artillery Regiment in late December 1941 when Japanese troops invaded the Philippines. The fighting continued until the surrender of the Bataan Peninsula on April 9, 1942 and the island of Corregidor the next month.
Vigil said he thought his uncle died in 1943, but the Department of Defense said Wednesday he died on November 19, 1942.
His uncle, who was 26 years old, died long before Vigil was born. Gutierrez was the third of seven children and the only boy. Vigil said Gutierrez was known by the family as Juanito.
“He was very protective of his sisters,” said Vigil. When the children came up and cracked down on their parents, “he always blamed his father, my grandpa,” said Vigil, who turned 56 on Wednesday. His uncle attended Santa Fe High School, he said.
Vigil said the family, of course, believed for years that Juanito Gutierrez was buried in Santa Fe National Cemetery because his headstone was there.
“I was there,” he said.
His mother told him that after Juanito’s death in the Cabanatuan POW camp in the Philippines, her parents were no longer the same. “A lot of Goldstar parents know that feeling,” said Vigil.
His family is steeped in military service. Vigil said his father, three brothers (including Vigil), a brother-in-law, an uncle, and a nephew all served in the Navy. He said he had nine missions handling F-18 Super Hornet jets from aircraft carriers.
“We’re all one big military family, so [we’re] versed “in the story of Gutierrez, said Vigil. Most of the offspring are in California and New Mexico, he said.
Life and Death of Pfc. Juan Gutierrez remains “a very important part of our family history,” said Vigil.
It was a “limited time he was in the army,” Gutierrez said, “but the sacrifice is almost unthinkable.”
Gutierrez’s remains are interred on December 7th, 80 years after the attack on Pearl Harbor.