For the ninth consecutive year 98 year old Bataan survivor and prisoner of war, retired Col. Ben Skardon, completed 8.5 miles of the Bataan Memorial Death March, March 20.
Skardon survived the original Bataan Death March in April of 1942. He endured the pain of marching over 60 miles to POW camps without stopping for food or a drink of water.
“I learned how easy it was to die when you lose the will to live,” Skardon said.
Each year he marches alongside his “brigade”, which is made up of family members, students he has taught, or individuals who have connected with him in prior marches. His “brigade” has consistently grown every year, this year was his largest following with 24 people.
Cindy Bolt Lee was one of the new members of the “brigade” for Bataan 2016. Lee said she had heard about Skardon through her son, who is currently attending Clemson University. Skardon sparked her interest because he graduated from Clemson University in 1938, the same year her dad did.
“I thought, ‘there’s someone who graduated with my dad and is still active,’” Lee said.
She said it was rare to find someone who graduated with her father because Clemson was a small military university with only about 200 graduates a year. She and Skardon connected immediately because they were both professors at one time in their careers. After returning to the U.S. Skardon went on to obtain his master’s degree and teach English at Clemson University.
Lee described Skardon as the epitome of a southern gentleman. What she finds so fascinating about Skardon is his positive attitude.
“He’s got a love of people and life…he’s inspiring,” she said. “You would think he would be bitter but he’s so joyful at the fact that he’s alive, it’s given him wisdom, strength and faith.”
As in previous years, Skardon finished his march in good time, about 23 minutes a mile, and in good spirits. Fellow Clemson classmates and prior students of Skardon chanted the Clemson fight song as Skardon approached his finish line.
Prior to his march, Skardon gives a talk to Bataan participants the Saturday before the race. Since Skardon has been marching for the past nine years word has gotten out and he now gives his speech in the auditorium to accommodate the large crowd. The auditorium quickly becomes standing-room only and a large group of people also builds up outside of the auditorium in hopes of meeting him before the race.
During his speech he talks about his experiences as a POW. Skardon credits his survival to two fellow Soldiers from Clemson who died as POWs, a condensed can of milk and his Clemson class ring. The two Soldiers, Henry Leitner and Otis Morgan, cared for Skardon while he was sick and had a severe eye infection. Leitner and Morgan were able to trade his Clemson ring for food and water and nurtured him back to health. Both Leitner and Morgan died as POWs. The condensed can of milk was the first thing Skardon grabbed shortly after they were surrendered and he would take sips of the milk, usually at night, to keep himself hydrated throughout the march. Skardon endured the march, the hell ship and POW camps throughout his three years as a POW.
The Bataan Memorial Death March has served as a way to recognize POWs and allow them the opportunity to share their story. Many of the POWs who attend the event feel shame when they recall times where they took clothing or food from fellow Soldiers who had died throughout the march.
“I was 80 years old when I started telling my story,” Skardon said. “This is my moral obligation to come here.”