BOSTON, MA, UNITED STATES
WHITE SANDS MISSILE RANGE, N.M. - After training for eight weeks, I joined more than 6,000 wounded warriors, service members and civilians in the pre-dawn opening ceremony of the 25th Bataan Memorial Death March at White Sands Missile Range, N.M., March 23, 2014.
The opening ceremony started with the sounding of reveille, a tribute to the survivors of the actual Bataan Death March which began in the Philippines April 9, 1942, and a roll call commemorating the lives of the Death March survivors who died in the last 12 months.
The officials running the march released the wounded warriors first, and then my division, military male heavy, and away we went.
To participate in a heavy division, military or civilian, you have to complete the 26.2 mile Death March carrying a backpack or rucksack weighing at least 35 pounds.
Once we started the march, we arrived at a bottleneck that completely stopped progress. A few people around me started grumbling about the false start until everyone figured out the reason was to shake hands with survivors from the 1942 ordeal.
When I shook the hands of these men in their 80s and 90s, I tried to imagine the hell on earth they went through, I tried and failed completely.
To understand the Bataan Death March, the forced march of more than 60,000 Filipino and American service members more than 80 miles, is to understand the absolute lack of compassion and morality of the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II and the feeling of abandonment of those left behind after the surrender and evacuation of the Philippines.
One of the reasons people participate in the annual Bataan Memorial Death March is to honor the men who died in 1942. As I passed the official start line, I thought about just how different my ordeal with the ruck march marathon was going to be from the actual Bataan Death March.
In the first mile, I talked with the soldiers from my unit attending the march with me; Capt. Anthony Clas, the 13th Public Affairs detachment commander and Spc. Jackie J. McKnight, a broadcaster with the 13th, about our strategy for the event.
During our training together, we conducted as much as a 14-mile ruck march, and always used a combination of jogging and very fast walking. We decided very early to cut out most of the jogging and fast walking and just try to maintain a sustainable pace.
Prior to the first mile of the actual Bataan Death March, more than 350 Filipino officers and noncommissioned officers were summarily executed immediately after they surrendered, and nobody was talking march strategy.
After the second mile of level terrain, I reached a water point where smiling volunteers offered me water and sports drinks.
Meanwhile in Bataan more than 70 years ago, Japanese captors started bayoneting and shooting the wounded men who fell behind the main body of the marchers.
Around mile marker five, I came upon the second water point where volunteers cheered me on and offered me slices of oranges and bananas and again water and sports drinks. In my pockets, I also carried some gel-type energy packets and almonds, and I had a hydration system strapped to my rucksack.
Their captors did not feed or provide water to the POWs at any point of the 80-mile forced march from Marivelles to San Fernando, and randomly killed healthy marchers with bayonet thrusts.
Upon reaching mile marker eight, I parted ways with those participating in the Honorary Bataan Death March, the Full march’s 14.1 mile-long little brother, and started up what I thought looked like a pretty long hill.
The hill lasted until I reached the water point at mile marker 14. The only good part about the horrendous climb up was the realization that I would get to experience the same hill, but at a downhill angle.
Those sneaky course designers somehow managed to make a six-mile hill last another two miles up before four miles of relative downhill.
After the 19th mile marker, I felt something painful happen to a toe on my right foot. The two soldiers I was marching with agreed it would probably be in all of our best interests to get our feet checked out at the mile 20 medical tent.
My feet looked pretty bad, sporting three big blisters on matching opposite toes and my right heel. One of the nurses lanced my blisters, a doctor trimmed the skin off, and the nurse dressed them with bandages, mole skin and duct tape.
As POWs blistered their feet, slipped into water buffalo wallows and twisted their ankles trying to get a sip of filthy water, and succumbed to dehydration and heat stroke, medical personnel undergoing the same harsh conditions did their best to treat them with no supplies, and hoped their kindness wouldn’t be met with the butt of a Japanese rifle, point of a bayonet, or the edge of one of their officers’ samurai swords.
Upon standing, I noticed a pain in my left foot, I hadn’t felt before, completely unrelated to any blister, but it was no big deal, I only had to make it another six miles.
If you’ve never been, the last six miles of the Bataan Memorial Death March traverses what is casually referred to as the sand pits … it’s not as pleasant as it sounds, and I do realize it sounds unpleasant.
I crossed a hundred hills meandering through the verdant, if verdant means a thousand shades of brown, New Mexico countryside, shuffling through two to four inches of sand at all times.
At the mile markers 25 and 26, volunteers and people from the light division (i.e. did not carry rucksacks) who had finished earlier cheered on me and my comrades telling us how close to finishing the marathon we were. It was a nice gesture, but none of us wanted to hear it at this point, we just wanted this self-inflicted torture to be over.
Suddenly, there it was, the finish line. Despite my group’s stated intention to cross together, McKnight sprinted to the finish line 10 seconds ahead of us. We all got in line to have our rucksacks weighed, which is a critical moment because if my rucksack had weighed fewer than 35 pounds my participation and completion of the marathon in the heavy division wouldn’t have counted, it weighed in at 41 pounds.
All I had ahead of me was a 10-hour drive back to Fort Hood.
More than 70 years ago on Bataan, marchers at the 26.2-mile mark would not have been able to see the finish line. The finish line wouldn’t even be a far off hazy specter until the POWs completed three marathon-length stretches of marching.
When the POWs crossed the finish line there were no cheering spectators, but only scowling Japanese soldiers herding them onto train cars 100 at a time.
Once the trains reached their final station, the Japanese captors forced the POWs to walk the final nine miles to Camp O’Donnell.
An official death toll has never been announced, however, approximately 2,500–10,000 Filipino and 100–650 American prisoners of war died before they reached Camp O’Donnell, and many more died in captivity.
The White Sands Bataan Memorial Death March honors the sacrifices of the victims and survivors of the 1942 war crime. The registration website states, “Those marching the 26.2 miles will be able to experience, in part, what soldiers endured during their long forced trek through the Philippines.”
The “in part” section of that statement is the most important, because while the Bataan Memorial Death March was physically the most difficult thing I’ve ever done, it pales in comparison to the atrocities suffered by the Filipino and American POWs in April of 1942.
||BOSTON, MA, US
This work, More than 6,000 marchers participate in 25th Bataan Memorial Death March, by SFC Joel Gibson, identified by DVIDS, is free of known copyright restrictions under U.S. copyright law.