This year marks 75 years since the sinking of the "Hell Ships" in World War II; and to follow is the story of a young American man who was amongst over 11,000 prisoners of war to perish on these ships. Fernando Gomez, Jr. was born on January 21, 1922 in Gallup, New Mexico, the firstborn of a World War I U.S. Army veteran and Rupertita Perea, a shepherd’s daughter. He enlisted in the National Guard before being called to active duty in January of 1941. He did his basic training at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas before being shipped to Clark Air Base in the Philippine Islands in August of 1941. He was among the American-Filipino forces who defended the Bataan Peninsula and survived the Bataan Death March and consequent internment as a Prisoner of War. As Japan was evacuating the Philippines at the end of the war, it placed the P.O.W.s, standing-room-only, into the holds of unmarked ships, forming a flotilla around crafts carrying Japanese soldiers. Because of filth and inhumane conditions under which the P.O.W.s were transported, these ill-fated vessels came to be known as “Hell Ships.” Fernando Gomez, Jr. and his fellow patriots were sunk and killed by American submarines or airplanes that mistakenly believed the unmarked ships carried the enemy. His life and service to his country has been remembered and honored by his family for nearly a century.
I grew up hearing these stories from my Father and he often would pull out his box of family archives to show me the letters that Fernando Jr. had written to his parents while he was serving in WWII. I was always saddened to hear that he had passed away so young and that he had no family to remember or honor him. So I chose to do so, first, with an Honors Thesis I wrote in high school at St. Michael's Academy, and second with this ofrenda (altar). Ofrendas are a typical expression used by Mexican families to honor their loved ones who have passed away for Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). While my family never celebrated this holiday growing up, it is through my work at the Mexic-Arte Museum that I learned about this tradition. This year the opportunity arose again to celebrate the life of my great uncle through an artistic expression. I spent many hours scanning the family archives, collecting as many artifacts I could, and putting together a pinterest mood board. Through the support of family (my Father, Fernando Gomez III and Uncle David M. Gomez) and friends (Andrew Anderson and Paulina Dosal-Terminel) as well as the support of Museum Director (Sylvia Orozco) I constructed the ofrenda over two weeks. On the ofrenda, I incorporated an essay he wrote in junior high "What it means to me to live in America"; photographs of him growing up; religious objects as he was a devout Catholic; and, even artificial beans, tortillas, and red chili, which was his favorite meal. I hope that people will not only learn about my great uncle, but also learn about the tragedy in Bataan during WWII.