Nature, military aggression tests Curry County residents

Don McAlavy

“From 1931 to 1934 was the driest years I ever saw in New Mexico, and there were a lot of sandstorms,” said Lee Merrill, who owns a 10,000-acre ranch in Running Water Draw. “Back then, you could buy all the groceries you could carry for $1.50. During the big drought in 1934, the government had a program to kill cattle as there was no feed to feed them. I sold my entire herd of 78 steers to the government for $18 a head.”

The droughts and the constant Southwest winds blew fields away and devastated many Curry County farmers. The 1930s saw the longest droughts of the 20th century, peaking in 1930, 1934, 1936, 1939 and 1940. A great “dust bowl” covered 50 million acres on the south central Plains during the winter of 1935-1936.

Clovis and Curry County was hit by the “Black Blizzard” on April 14, 1935, the worst dust storm this area experienced.

Razie Bell, living at Blacktower (Portair) back then, later said, “The dust covered everything. It was a whitish-red powdery stuff. It even settled on barbed-wire fences.”

Nothing could keep out the dust. No window, no door, no matter how tight you thought they were, would keep out that fine dust. Most people found it terrifying.

For one, “It seemed as if it were the end of all life.”

Many people came down with “dust pneumonia.”

Dr. Elwyn Crume, living in Clovis today, was about 4 years old when his mother, Mrs. Price (Helen) Crume at Kenna, came down with dust pneumonia and died two weeks following this terrible storm.

Wet sheets hung over the windows and doors became muddy in a few minutes. Unknown to most residents here, a high-pressure system had moved out of the Dakotas and into eastern Wyoming, silently lifting the powder-dry soil of the Plains as it came down across eastern Colorado and western Kansas.

Drought, coupled with bad farming methods (over-plowing was one), made the conditions ripe for what was happening.

By 1933, 15 million Americans had no jobs. The currency and the banks were unstable, farm prices were low, and many people were about to lose their homes and their farms.

For many, living conditions were desperate. Desperate times called for desperate measures.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt initiated his New Deal programs to put people back to work, programs known by their initials, such as the CCC, the TVA and the WPA.

This WPA, (Works Progress Administration -called by some critics, “We Piddle Around”) was the one to aid people here in Clovis and Curry County.

This government program would grant a community, a school or highway department up to 60 percent of the cost, with those entities receiving the money and supplying the labor and material.

Thus, the government paid the laborers, from $16 a week to $90 a month. In Clovis, WPA funds helped build the rock walls at Hillcrest Park; around our only junior high; paved streets and laid concrete sidewalks; and provided new sewer lines, including a wastewater treatment plant; planted elm trees (by the CCC boys); and built Clovis Junior High School (now Marshall), which was finished in 1936.

The Curry County Courthouse and jail were finished with WPA funds in 1936; the Memorial Hospital Building in 1939.

Architects Jerry Schaefer and Robert Merrell can be credited with designing the junior high on Commerce Way.

In Curry County, many roads were built, many schools and facilities built at Melrose, Field, Hollene, Pleasant Hill and Grady.

Another government program, the WPA Art Project, put artists and craftsmen to work.

R. Vernon Hunter of Texico became the head of New Mexico’s WPA Art Project. He painted a mural in the Central Baptist Church (since destroyed) and the murals in the De Baca County Courthouse in Fort Sumner, featuring scenes from Texico, Clovis and Fort Sumner, including Billy the Kid.

Two other WPA artists came from Clovis – Pedro Cervantez and James Ridgley Whiteman (both still creating paintings, flutes and Indian jewelry).

Incidentally, Paul Lantz, a WPA artist not from Clovis, painted the only mural Clovis has today, which is located in the old post office at Fourth and Mitchell streets, now home of Eldon Smith’s architect business. The 4-by-8-foot mural is apparently an early Clovis or Texico scene, and often referred to by some critics as the “Three-Legged Horse.”

The beautiful murals in the administration building at Eastern New Mexico University were done by Lloyd Moylan in 1936.

Melrose, at the end of the WPA days, asked for and got more paintings done by WPA artists than any other school or institution.

“Clovis did not ask for any, so did not get any,” said Mrs. R. Vernon Hunter of Santa Fe.

In 1938, the government announced that it had spent $18 billion for relief since 1933.

This area was coming out of the depression by 1938 and ’39, but back in 1935, Clovis News-Journal editor, the late, great Jack Hull, with the help of many friends, one of them G.C. Campbell (Clovis’ first parade marshal), decided to lift up the spirits of people in Clovis and Curry County by throwing a big party.

That party became the famous Pioneer Days Celebration we continue to celebrate today.

“If people today (1935) think they got it hard, they better think again and think how hard our pioneers who came here to this raw country had it,” preached Jack Hull.

New developments began to occur after 1935.

In 1936, a livestock auction business opened in the stockyards, founded by John Young and Homer Autry, with J. W. Hardgrove and son Jimmy (Jim Hardgrove still lives in Clovis) buying a half-interest in 1937.

Today, the horse auctions here are attended by buyers from all over the nation, and have become one of the biggest horse auctions in the United States. (Back in about 1938, Gene Autry, nephew to Homer Autry, came here to buy a new “Champion” horse.)

Another development that got the people smiling again was when the Pioneers Baseball Club, started by Busy Bee Cafe owner John Rallis in 1938, brought semi-professional baseball to Clovis at old Bell Park on Seventh and Walnut streets, named after then-City Commissioner George W. Bell, who was a baseball fan.

The games were suspended during World War II, but resumed again in 1946.

The Pioneers disbanded in 1958, much to the dismay of the fans.

It was on July 28, 1938, that many lives were lit up when the Rural Electrification Administration (REA) announced that power lines would soon be built in northern Curry County. The small rural community of Claud, 16 miles north of Clovis, got electricity in about 1939, as this historian recalls. A single light bulb replaced our old coal-oil lamp. How “delighted” we were!

Another electrical-powered contraption came into public existence in May of 1938: The National Broadcasting Company (NBC) broadcast its first television program, but at first the public was told that only the metropolitan area of New York City would be able to receive their broadcasts.

For some of us country boys, we didn’t see a TV until 1952 when a few of us were drafted for the Korean conflict.

In 1940, the Clovis’ 111th Cavalry of the New Mexico National Guard converted to the 200th Coast Artillery. Those guys were about to jump from the frying pan into the fire.

Many Americans died from that fire on Dec. 7, 1941, a day “That Would Live in Infamy!” when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and destroyed most of the U.S. Pacific naval fleet.

In April 1941, a farm boy from the Field community by the name of Lee Roach was drafted into the 200th Coast Artillery.

“We were shipped out to the Philippine Islands the first part of September 1941,” he said. “On Dec. 7, we got news Pearl Harbor had been bombed. We had all our guns at Clark Airfield. About 10 o’clock, we got word they (the Japanese) were coming after us. While our planes were on the ground, here came 54 Japanese high bombers and they unloaded on us. We lost nearly all the planes. Planes and people on the airfield were on fire and burning. Over 100 men out on the field were killed. Right behind the bombers, 50 or more Japanese fighters came in and tried to kill the rest of us. This lasted about two hours, and we were lucky to live through all of that!”

But their luck ran out and soon they were pushed back to form a line on Bataan.

The next day, the 515th Coast Artillery was formed as part of the 200th.

“They would dive-bomb us in the day time, and we would move at night and dig our guns in before daylight,” he said. “We didn’t get much rest. Then we were low on ammunition. Later, we were told there were about 20 Japanese to one of us. The front line finally broke, and we had it then. They said they might just kill us all so Gen. King and Gen. Wainwright surrendered us to the Japanese. We didn’t know what was going to happen. We had no food, water or nothing but the dirt. We went three days and nights in that tropical heat with nothing to eat or drink. That’s what hurt so many Americans on the Death March. A lot of our boys didn’t make it.”

Eventually Lee Roach and many other POWs were taken to Japanese work camps on ships to Japan.

Their commander, Clovis’ former postmaster Lt. Col. John C. Luikart, was on a ship loaded with POWs when American bombers blew it out of the sea, but Luikart and other prisoners survived only to be put on another ship, and it too was hit by American bombers. This time shrapnel from a bomb killed Luikart. Clovis’ Cash Skarda was by his side when he died.

Lee Roach, with E Battery, and others were put to work, fed little, and he got down to 125 pounds, but he managed to survive that ordeal of three-and-a-half years.

Alfred Haws, like Lee Roach, is today living in Clovis. He was with G Battery and was put in a prisoner-of-war camp in Korea when one day, just a few days before the war was over, American planes bombed the camp (the camps weren’t marked as POW camps) and bomb shrapnel took off his right arm.

Of the 60 men that went to the Philippines, only 17 of them returned and today only four survive and live in Clovis: Lee Roach, Alfred Haws, Buren Johnston and Alvin Fails. Only three survive today in Portales: Tommy McGee, Homer Hobbs and I.R. Butler.

The J.M. Smiths of Clovis sent three of their sons to the war: Burney, “Jake” and Clark, all fighting in the Philippines. Only Clark Smith survived after suffering imprisonment in Japan.

By July 1942, 700 men from Curry County had gone to war.

The European campaign in World War II had its Clovis and Curry County casualties, too, but the above experience by the 111th that left Clovis in 1941 is one graphic example of how war is.

In 1942, the old TAT air field was taken over for war purposes, with a small army glider detachment the first unit to train at Clovis Army Air Field.

Soon crews of B-17, B-24 and B-29 bombers began training at the base.

Eventually the field would be renamed the Clovis Army Air Base, and in 1957 rededicated as Cannon Air Force Base.

Another military unit began training on April 25, 1942, on Santa Fe Railway land south of the tracks and west of South Prince Street that was called Camp Reid.

These men were part of the 713th Railroad Operating Battalion, training soldiers to operate trains and maintain tracks in the European theater. This training was sponsored by the Santa Fe Railway.

Many Clovis’ civilians worked in that camp, with the late Bo Womack as the civilian personnel director. Two of the others still living in Clovis that worked there are “Butch” Sass and Jimmy Donahey.

On Jan. 25, 1942, the U.S. government proceeded to place the Japanese (men, women and kids) at the railroad Japanese community in interment camps.

First placed near old Fort Stanton near Ruidoso, the government later moved them to Arizona and Utah (never mind the fact they were American citizens working for the Santa Fe Railway since 1911).

Just four years before, at the 1938 Pioneers Day parade here, the Japanese community won the prize for the best float, featuring a Japanese garden with several little Japanese girls.

During World War II the gravestones of six Japanese dead, in the West Seventh Street cemetery, were destroyed.

In 1944, the 9th Company of the N.M. State Guard was sent to guard Alamogordo Dam near Fort Sumner to safeguard it from saboteurs. Chick Taylor Sr., still living in Clovis at age 94, was the captain of that group. They must have done a good job as the dam still stands today.

Also in 1944, on Nov. 30, a train load of 500-pound Bombs exploded at Tolar, some 40 miles west of Clovis. Tolar was nearly wiped off the map; luckily only one person was killed, Jess Brown.

The explosion was heard from as far away as Hereford, Texas. A long metal rod from the explosion which buried itself in the ground in Johnny Eastwood’s pasture can still be seen today, part of it sticking out of the ground. Apparently, it can’t be pulled up.

On July 26, 1945, the first explosion of an atomic bomb was set off in the early morning hours at Trinity Site, in the south central desert area west of Alamogordo, bringing the world into the Nuclear Age, but which ended abruptly a long war with the Japanese.

A Clovis man, Luther Sharpe, pastor at the First Presbyterian Church, traveling back to Clovis across southern New Mexico, witnessed night turning into day. No announcement was made of this momentous occasion at the time; just that the explosion was simply a large quantity of military munitions accidentally blowing up.

During that war, many Clovis civilians went to work in Navy shipyards in California; all put up with rationing, many collected scrap metal for the war effort, and all drove the official speed limit of 35 mph.