Nuestra Historia - Camp Luna — a proud tradition

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In 1929, Camp Luna was named in honor of Captain Maximiliano Luna, a Rough Rider and hero of the 1898 Spanish-American War, who later lost his life during military service in the Philippines. From a distinguished Valencia County family, Luna was elected speaker of New Mexico’s territorial House of Representatives when he was only 26. (Luna had earlier attended the Jesuit College in Las Vegas.)

The New Mexico National Guard was created by territorial law in 1897, and in 1904 the Guard chose Las Vegas for its first annual encampment, to be held atop an open plateau northwest of town. At the time New Mexico’s premier city, Las Vegas, was also chosen because it boasted an active history of military interest and readiness.   

A “Home Guard” had been formed here as early as 1880. Later, in 1902, 35 local infantrymen organized Company K, followed by Troop A, organized in 1903 by 25 Las Vegas cavalrymen. (In 1903, Las Vegas was selected as the site for a National Guard armory, which was built on Douglas Avenue in 1908.)

After the first encampment in 1904, the Guard returned intermittently to Las Vegas for annual encampments, and it was reported that “from their elevated position on the crest of the hill the soldiers are treated to a beautiful site.” In 1925, the site was designated as the permanent training camp for the New Mexico National Guard, and local businessmen raised money to acquire the location for the state.

About 668 acres were purchased from the Las Vegas Land Grant, and in 1926 construction began for a bathhouse, four brick mess halls, and 62 tent floors.

In 1929, six additional mess halls were built, and it was during this time that the commanding officer, Col. Norman L. King, issued an order naming the military camp after Capt. Luna.   

Designated as a cavalry training camp, cavalry regiments continued training at Camp Luna through the 1930s, as did a regiment of engineers and a battery of artillery.

In 1935, with mostly WPA funds, a large stadium was built west of the camp, as a training facility for the cavalry regiment. The stone stadium, with seating for 1,500 spectators, was named in honor of Col. King, the Camp commander,  who had died in 1933. (Unknown to many, King Stadium is an imposing site,  hidden amid the brush and trees below the Crestón.)

In 1939, the cavalry regiment was converted into the 200th Coastal Artillery, and in 1941, after intense training at Camp Luna, the regiment was deployed to the Philippine Islands during World War II. For this reason, hundreds of New Mexicans, including many from Las Vegas, fought courageously in the Philippines, and many died there during the infamous Bataan Death March, or as prisoners of war of the Japanese. After their ordeal, many returned home to Las Vegas, always revered here as honored veterans.     

Also during WWII, Camp Luna was nationalized, and the U.S. War Department undertook a hurried expansion of the site. Additional brick and frame buildings were constructed in 1942 and 1943, and as many as 3,500 soldiers came to Las Vegas for training. Many remained or returned here and married, and countless Las Vegans are proud descendants of soldiers who came to Camp Luna during this period.

After the war, Highlands University leased Camp Luna for a vocational school and for student housing until 1953. More than 10 years later, the Camp was used as a Job Corps training site, at the inception of President Johnson’s war on poverty.

In 1970, Luna Vocational Technical Institute was established at Camp Luna.

The predecessor of Luna Community College, LVTI was jointly established by the East and West Las Vegas school districts, and the Mora, Wagon Mound and Santa Rosa public schools. Moises Tejada, formerly the principal at West Las Vegas High School, became its first president.

At about the same time, a private housing development emerged at the northeast area of Camp Luna, and many of the old brick barracks were converted into spacious and modern homes.  

In January 1991, Camp Luna’s 720th Transportation Unit was deployed to the Persian Gulf during operation Desert Storm. Upon their return six months later, Las Vegas greeted the unit’s 130 members with great fanfare and celebration.

(At about this time, the existing armory was completed at the northwest area of Camp Luna.)

Most recently, after 9/11, the 720th was deployed to Iraq for more than a year.

When the Unit returned on July 28, 2004, Las Vegas held a parade and ceremonies at Perkins Stadium to honor the 169 soldiers, among them eight Purple Heart recipients.

These are the most recent examples of Camp Luna’s long and proud military history and tradition.   

Jesus L. Lopez is a native of Las Vegas and a local historian. He may be reached at 425-3730.