White Sands Missile Range hosted a record breaking 6,200 participants at the 25th annual Bataan Memorial Death March on March 23.
The march honors the American and Filipino Soldiers who were surrendered to Japanese Forces during WWII. As prisoners of war the Soldiers had to endure a death march the length of almost three marathons with some ending up in “hell ships” with little to no room to breathe. Participants had an option of taking on the entire 26.2 mile of mountain terrain, or the honorary 14.2 mile course, or if you are 96-year-old Bataan prisoner of war survivor Col. Ben Skardon, an honorary eight and a half mile march. “Tyranny and oppression do not have a place in the modern world. Through your actions we make sure that our nation never forgets,” said Maj. Gen. Gwen Bingham, White Sands Missile Range commander, prior to starting the honorary march herself.
The march begins with the participants shaking the hands of the survivors who attend the event. This year 13 survivors attended. Skardon participated in his seventh personal honorary march. He started to march when he first attended the event at 90-years-old and has since created a large following who affectionately call themselves ‘Ben’s Brigade.’
“This is a once in a lifetime experience that I’ll carry with me for the rest of my life,” said NMSU ROTC Cadet Pvt. Aaron Stoddard, who was asked to watch over Skardon throughout the events. The events, created to honor the prisoners of war, began on Saturday, where participants heard first-hand accounts from each of the survivors. This year, a dinner was held to honor the survivors the Friday before the march. Survivors were also intermittently present during registration to sign memorabilia from the march. Aside from honoring the prisoners of war, family members who lost a Soldier during the encampment also find it a good way to pay tribute. One of those is 71-year-old Joe Brown, who never met his father, Warrant Officer Charles D. Brown, who died on a hell ship. Since he found the march that pays tribute to his father’s life he has participated in the full marathon for 10 years straight. Brown brought along his son for his journey.
“My dad made his whole marathon…as long as I’m able…I figure I could go 26 miles, which is only a portion of what he did,” Brown said.
Some who have nothing in common with the Bataan Death March; attend the event because of what it signifies to them. Michael Smith, a Vietnam veteran, his son Joshua, a retired Soldier, and Joshua’s 10-year-old son, Caleb, all participated in the full marathon. This is Michael’s eighth time and Joshua’s sixth; this will be Caleb’s first. Prior to arriving at WSMR, Caleb did research on what happened at Bataan and why the event was held. He did several papers for school and decided to create a fundraiser to honor the Wounded Warriors. Caleb raised $1,000 in donations.
“It uplifts my spirits,” Josh said. “It’s important for our kids to get to see the men who made and are currently making these sacrifices for us.”
Others wanted to celebrate a personal accomplishment, like Marva Little, a retired Soldier and retired WSMR employee, who was unable to finish the honorary march on her first attempt two years ago due to a concurrent battle with breast cancer. Little returned this year, cancer free, to take on the 14.2 trek and vows to return for the full marathon.
“I am hard charging and I can do it,” Little said. “Anyone who knows my character has always used the term strength to describe me.”
Cadets from New Mexico State University, who are usually in charge of a Saturday historical seminar and a water point along the route, also took on the role of acting as aids for the Bataan survivors who attended the event. The cadets are with the survivors from the time they arrive until the survivors depart. If school time interferes, the NCOIC, Sgt. James Walker takes over.
“The overall sponsorship the NMSU ROTC has in the entire event is an awesome thing to me,” Walker said. The events ended with a tribute to the survivors and an award ceremony.