Resilience Through Hell: This Is the Bataan Memorial Death March

By Katie Lange
Defense Media Activity

A marathon in itself is grueling. A marathon across desert terrain on one of the hardest routes in the U.S. is likely even worse.

So imagine marching 26.2 miles with heavy gear on your back, all to honor thousands of service members who, at the onset of World War II, were forced into a much worse trek in much worse conditions.

Participants in the 2014 Bataan Memorial Death March prepare for their 26.2-mile trek that honors the more than 76,000 POW/MIAs from Bataan and Corregidor during World War II. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Aaron Montoya

That’s the Bataan Memorial Death March, an event that’s drawing 8,380 service members, wounded warriors and civilians from all over the world to White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico, this Sunday, March 25. The 29th annual march honors the thousands of Allied forces who were captured, tortured and killed by the Japanese as they tried to defend the Philippines.

The Philippines campaign is one that’s largely overlooked when it comes to the atrocities that happened during World War II. But to those who survived it and their families, it’s a piece of history that should never be forgotten. And that’s where the memorial march comes in – to make sure it honors those men and keeps their sacrifices alive.

Retired U.S. Army Col. Ben Skardon, 99, a survivor of the Bataan Death March, walks in the annual Bataan Memorial Death March accompanied by New Mexico State University Army ROTC cadet Ryan Bradley (left), and Spc. Michael Cole of the McAfee Army Health Clinic, March 19, 2017. This was the 10th time Skardon walked a distance of 8.5 miles in the march. Army Reserve photo by Staff Sgt. Ken Scar

History of Bataan

We all know the story of what happened at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1942. It’s the next day, however, that the fight for the Philippines began. Japanese troops began to attack the Allied forces stationed there, and our troops weren’t prepared for the onslaught. The Japanese had more forces and were better equipped, so they quickly took over the capital of Manila and forced Allied troops into the jungle of the Bataan Peninsula.

Soldiers from the 200th Coast Artillery, New Mexico National Guard surround an antiaircraft artillery gun at Bataan, Philippine Islands, circa 1942. National Guard photo

Despite fighting hard, our men were ill and starving – eating iguanas, snakes and even monkeys by April 9, 1942, when they surrendered to the enemy. More than 11,000 Americans and 60,000 Filipino soldiers became prisoners of war.

That’s when the real fight for life began.

The captured Allied troops were forced to march 65 miles through hot, humid jungle across the Bataan Peninsula to concentration camps. There was no food or water for them, and they were often beaten along the way. Those who couldn’t keep up were executed with guns and bayonets.

U.S. Army National Guard and Filipino soldiers shown at the outset of the Bataan Death March in April 1942. National Guard photo

The nearly 54,000 prisoners who survived the march were taken to a dirty and vastly overcrowded camp. Dysentery, malaria, starvation and other diseases ran rampant. According to government records, it’s estimated that 400 prisoners died each day.

Some prisoners were transferred via “hell ships” to other camps on the Japanese mainland or its territories. Those who lived were subject to slave labor and other brutality that lasted for nearly three years, until American troops returned to liberate the Philippines in the spring of 1945.

It’s estimated that only one-third of those who surrendered on Bataan in April 1942 survived the war. There are no official figures of those who died during the Bataan Death March.

Why the Memorial March?

Soldiers competing in the heavy division cross the mile 13 marker during the Bataan Memorial Death March at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico, March 21, 2017. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Jeremiah Runser

The Bataan Memorial Death March is a true test of endurance, and it’s driven by the spirit and will of those who survived those harrowing years in captivity.

“They kept the faith. They held on, dug deep, and found a reservation of strength and courage,” said Margaret Garcia, daughter of deceased Bataan Memorial Death March survivor Evans Garcia. “They crippled the Japanese war efforts.”

Trek the Course in Under 7 Minutes

That’s the spirit of the American military, and that’s why this march has grown from about 100 marchers in 1989 to thousands from around the world.

There are two routes – the full 26.2 miles or 14.2 miles – and marchers can choose to wear a pack that weighs more than 35 pounds, or go with no weight requirements. Regardless, the course has elevation changes, sand pits and other obstacles that make it an intense challenge.

We’ll be on the ground at the march this weekend to get a bird’s-eye view of what it’s like to make this trek. It won’t be easy, so good luck to the marchers, and thank you for keeping the memories of our fallen and surviving warriors alive!

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