Written by Jessica Salopek
At 80 years old, Mary Beth Reinhart may just be one of the most inspiring members of the Las Cruces community. Read about her fascinating journey from Morocco to Germany to heading up the Bataan Memorial Death March at White Sands Missile Range.
Considering she’s lived here for 37 years, Las Cruces could be considered Mary Beth Reinhart’s hometown. But if you ask her where she grew up, it’s pretty difficult to pin down one place she would call home. She was born in 1938 on a southern plantation outside of Memphis, Tennessee, “but then we started moving,” she remembers.
When Mary Beth was just two years old, her father was called up to active duty in the military and the family was sent to Northern California. They were in Oregon when World War II broke out, and he was moved to Florida to serve in the Army Air Corps, which soon became the U.S. Air Force. After the war, they were stationed in Georgia, Louisiana, and two bases in Texas. Then, when Mary Beth was a sophomore in high school, her father got stationed in North Africa.
“We were in Morocco—which was French Morocco at the time—and I graduated from high school there,” she says. “Morocco was in the midst of a civil war then. The French and the Arabs were fighting and we were there when they brought the Arab sultan back from Madagascar and all of the sudden it was no longer French Morocco, it was just Morocco. Living through a civil war was interesting to say the least.”
The summer after her graduation, the family moved to Germany. Mary Beth spent one semester at a girls’ school in Switzerland, but since she wasn’t getting college credit, she rejoined her family In Germany, where she spent a year studying in Munich at a branch of University of Maryland.
“There was a still a lot of war damage and rebuilding to do in Germany then,” she says. “Mainz was almost flat. Frankfurt was pretty well bombed out. That experience was one of the reasons I really got interested in studying history.”
When her parents moved to Utah, Mary Beth enrolled at the University of Colorado where she double majored in English and history, with a minor in education. She took a teaching position at a middle school in New York, where she taught for five years, until her parents returned to Germany. When she went to visit them, she ended up taking what was initially a year-long leave of absence, and never went back to teaching. In 1967, she took a job with Special Services, the recreation division of the U.S. Army at the time, simply because they were hiring and she wanted to stay in Europe. She ended up finding a lifelong career.
“I found that recreation was, number one, something that I enjoyed, and something that I was good at. I loved living in Europe and helping other people find joy. I liked expanding their horizons whether it was through woodworking or lapidary or arts and crafts. I enjoyed the health promotions aspect of the sports programs and, with the special events, I liked not only the final outcome, but the actual process of planning,” she explains.
Mary Beth remembers the Army in Europe in the late 60s being mostly young, male, single soldiers. U.S. troops were just starting to get involved in Vietnam and it was the height of the drug problem in Europe. Mary Beth worked for the community center where they served snacks and refreshments for the soldiers on most nights and held contests in billiards, table tennis, and horseshoes. They also organized Sunday tours of various European destinations and Mary Beth helped develop a raft race on the Rhine river, which became an annual event.
Over the years, she held positions in Wurzburg, Aschaffenburg, Kaiserslautern, Mannheim, Heidelberg, and Schwetzingen. She started out as a staff member in the service clubs and worked her way up the chain, serving as assistant district supervisor, district supervisor, community center chief for the US Army in Europe (USAREUR) headquarters, and eventually, chief. As the years passed, the recreation services started to expand to accommodate the growing number of military family members joining their soldiers in Europe.
One of Mary Beth’s most memorable trips involved taking 1,300 soldiers and family members to Oktoberfest. They made it back with all but one who had to be taken to an Army hospital after getting into a knife fight. On another memorable outing with three busloads of people, the base commander’s wife and daughters didn’t make it back on time and got left behind. “I couldn’t keep 100 people waiting, so we had to go,” Mary Beth remembers. “The Colonel had to drive over two hours each way to pick them up. I got a phone call about that one.”
In 1976, Mary Beth married Bill Reinhart, a recently retired Army aviator. Mary Beth had been working as a civilian for USAREUR for so many years that she was required to register to be placed in a position back in the states. Fortunately, her paperwork ended up getting misplaced, and she and Bill were able to stay in Europe for another six years. When the error was finally noticed in 1982, she took a position as the recreation services officer at White Sands Missile Range (WSMR).
Mary Beth stayed on at WSMR for 23 years, overseeing recreation and special events until her retirement in 2005. During her tenure, she handled marketing and sponsorship opportunities, and organized the annual Oktoberfest and Organizational Day celebrations. She spearheaded the design, development and opening of many new facilities including the Pavilion at Volunteer Park, the Army Community of Excellence Lodge, the Fitness Trail, and the Auto Crafts Shop. She led efforts to expand and improve the post library, the gym, the golf course, and a car wash. She also established “Better Opportunities for Single Soldiers” at WSMR, a program designed to improve the lives of single soldiers.
It (the Bataan Memorial Death March) just kept growing. Last year they had 8,000 and they’ve had to cap it at 10,000.
Mary Beth’s perhaps biggest contribution, however, was bringing the Bataan Memorial Death March to WSMR, although she readily admits she can’t take credit for the idea. The Bataan started in 1988 when Ray Pickering, an NMSU ROTC cadet, suggested they do a march in memory of the WWII soldiers as a fundraiser. The first march was held in 1989 over Baylor Pass and was limited to ROTC cadets.
“In ‘90 and ’91, I would see the cadets training out in the desert near my home,” she recalls. “I’d also gotten more and more interested in Bataan because one of our Colonels, Col. Jerry Schurtz, lost his father in the Bataan. He had started working on a project to get proper awards for survivors and their families. In talking to Col. Schurtz, I learned more than I did in any history class.”
In the early spring of 1992, on her way into work, Mary Beth heard on the radio that the march was being cancelled due to insurance issues. As soon as she got to her desk she tried over and over to call the battalion commander, to see if WSMR could take over hosting of the event, but she kept getting a busy signal. “Turns out he was calling me at the same time, with the same idea,” she says with a laugh.
There wasn’t enough time to pull the event together for the spring, but they managed to host a march in October of 1992, and then turned around and did another in the spring of 1993. Those first few years only about 120 people marched as it was only open to ROTC cadets and active duty soldiers. When the civilians on base started showing an interest, Mary Beth and her team got the approval to open it up to the public. “It grew by a few hundred each year. In 2002, we dedicated the statue at Veteran’s Memorial Park before the march and we had 4,200 marchers that year,” Mary Beth says. “It just kept growing. Last year they had 8,000 and they’ve had to cap it at 10,000.”
People come from all over the country and even overseas to march the 26-mile course which includes pavement, dirt roads, gravel, hills, and sand pits. “It’s psychologically horrible,” Mary Beth admits. “When you get to 23 or 24 miles, you can see the housing area, but you still have over two miles to go in the sandy desert. The Military Police company commanders who laid out the basic course said, ‘If it’s going to be a memorial march, it needs to be tough.’ And it is.” (There is also a short course of 14.2 miles and marchers have the option of being picked up at any water station if they are too tired to continue.)
After she retired in 2005, Mary Beth stepped back for a while, but she now volunteers at the event every year. At 80 years old, she still stays busy. She is very active in the Remember Bataan Foundation and she serves on the board of the White Sands Historical Foundation. Through her work with the Las Cruces Chamber of Commerce, she helps put on the annual “Thanks Team WSMR” celebration, an event she helped found while she was still working. She also funds two ROTC scholarships in memory of her father and her late husband, and she belongs to a gardening club.
Yet of all she’s accomplished, Mary Beth is still most proud of her work with the Bataan Memorial Death March and she hopes that the legacy will continue for many years to come.
She said, “Survivors from Bataan are invited to the event every year and one of the things a lot of the marchers comment on is meeting the survivors at the finish line. But when all the survivors have passed, can we keep the momentum going? I’ve always stressed keeping ‘memorial’ in the title. If you don’t know history, you’re doomed to repeat it. We need to continue to honor these veterans and their families for the sacrifices they have made.”
The 2019 Bataan Memorial Death March will be held at White Sands Missile Range on March 17. To register or for more information visit: bataanmarch.com