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War, Rockets, and Renewal: 1941 to Present

World War II

The year after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, enrollment at New Mexico College A&M fell from 935 to 209. With many of the students at war, the campus was utilized by the Army Specialized Training Program. By the end of the war, 124 of the college's former students had died in military service.

Eighteen hundred men of the New Mexico National Guard were sent to the Philippines in 1941. The islands fell to the Japanese in April 1942. Taken prisoner, the American troops were forced to march more than sixty miles through intense heat with almost no water or food. Known as the Bataan Death March, less than half of the prisoners survived. There were thirty-one soldiers from the Las Cruces area on the March, only fourteen survived.

Resentment against the Japanese was so high that the Emergency Farm Labor Program could not use Japanese war prisoners to work on Mesilla Valley farms. Instead, Italian prisoners picked cotton. In July 1944, German prisoners replaced the Italians. They worked on local farms until 1946. Generally, the prisoners of war were valued as wartime laborers.

Wartime meant rationing everything from gasoline to sugar to tires. In 1942, Dona Ana County invested $93,894 in war bonds and stamps, more than twice its quota. Children brought dimes to school on Wednesdays to buy war bond stamps. College girls volunteered to pick cotton. Las Crucens also held drives to collect scrap metal, rubber, and tin foil for the war effort.

At 5:30 a.m., July 16, 1945, scientists from Los Alamos tested the atomic bomb on the Alamogordo Bombing Range. Shock waves from the explosion broke windows 120 miles away. Officials said the blast was an accidental munitions explosion. In August, the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Japan's surrender five days later ended World War II.

White Sands Missile Range

New Mexico became a testing ground in 1930 when Robert Goddard brought his rocket research program to Roswell. In 1944, the government took over the Alamogordo Bombing Range and nearby lands for the new White Sands Proving Ground. This area was approximately 100 miles long and forty miles wide.

In August 1945, German scientists, who had surrendered during the war, arrived at the testing ground. With them came confiscated V-2 rocket components. The scientists, including Wernher Von Braun, were cleared by security officials to work on the missile project. The Army's Ballistic Missile Program was led by Von Braun. After the proving ground was selected as a missile testing range, it was renamed White Sands Missile Range. Covering 3,200 square miles, it is one of the largest military installations in the country.

Post War

Almost half of the students enrolled at the New Mexico College A&M were soldiers returning from the war. Housing was scarce. Some families camped along the riverbank. The housing shortage eased when builders began developing entire subdivisions. Most of the builders were local, including C. B. Smith and Jamie Stull.

Las Cruces celebrated its Centennial in 1949. Centennial Queen Teresa Viramontes led the Main Street parade. The weeklong celebration ended with "La Gran Fiesta," an extravagant pageant at the college football stadium. Two hours before show time a windstorm knocked down the sets. Volunteers quickly rebuilt the set, and the show went on. The pageant included more than 1,000 participants.

Growth and Urban Renewal

From 1950 to 1960, the population of Las Cruces grew from 12,000 to more than 29,000. City leaders adopted an Urban Renewal Program for downtown. This program closed several blocks of Main Street and created a walking mall. The owners of historic Saint Genevieve's Catholic Church and Loretto Academy tore down their buildings. Many houses were built when a thousand acres of land was developed on the east mesa.