Fort Polk Soldiers honor Death March survivors
April 15, 2011
FORT POLK, La. - Two Fort Polk teams from the 46th Engineer Battalion, 1st Maneuver Enhancement Brigade and 1st Battalion (Airborne), 509th Infantry Regiment, along with 6,100 other people, participated in the 22nd Annual Bataan Memorial Death March in White Sands Missile Range, N.M. March 27. The event honors the sacrifices of 75,000 U.S. and Filipino prisoners of war, who were forced by Japanese Soldiers to walk 60 miles up the east Bataan peninsula coast in the Philippines to Camp O'Donnell on April 10, 1942, during World War II.
The Soldiers, already weakened by hunger and disease, were forced to walk with little to no food or water, without rest. Those who couldn't keep the pace, stopped or asked for food or water were immediately executed. Around 5,000-10,000 Filipino and 600-650 American prisoners of war died before they could reach Camp O'Donnell.
The two teams, the 46th "Polk Legends" and the 509th "Polk Heroes" opted to march the 26.2 mile route, in the male military heavy division category, wearing full military gear and 35-pound rucksacks.
The Polk Heroes included:
Pfc. David Perez
Pfc. Albert Perkins
Sgt. Christopher Alacron
Pfc. Anthony Smith
Sgt. William Hacker
The Polk Legends included:
Sgt. Maj. Tony James
Staff Sgt. Peter Allan
Sgt. William Pfeifer
1st Sgt. Paul Vedros
Sgt. 1st Class James Dean
To prepare for the march, the 46th Eng Bn began walking in 3-mile increments in January once a week and eventually maxed their training at 15 miles.
"It was more to get our feet and our backs conditioned," said Sgt. Maj. Tony James, team leader of the Legends. "It wasn't about speed."
The 509th team trained for two-and-a-half weeks, completing a 9-mile and 18-mile ruck march. Sgt. Christopher Alacron, team leader of the Heroes, said the team had an advantage preparing for the march, since three out of the five team members were training for Ranger School in Fort Benning, Ga.
"We've been doing pre-ranger training for about a month and we've been going pretty hard at it," said Alacron. "We ruck one, sometimes twice a week, and do physical training twice a day at a rigorous pace."
The 26.2 mile march started at White Sands Missile Range's main post, crossed hilly terrain, winded around a small mountain and returned to the finish line through sandy desert trails and washes. The elevation of the course ranged from 4,100 to 5,300 feet.
"You spend about the first mile and a half getting from the start point out to the desert, then you spend the next six miles on the average terrain of the course, which is soft sand, but the worst part is when you come out of mile seven - you just start looking up hill from there," said James. "Needless to say, when you get to mile 13, you're very happy when you start going downhill."
Even with preparation, both teams agreed the march wasn't an easy task.
First Sgt. Paul Vedros of the 509th Legends said even with the training, nothing can prepare participants for the march.
"I don't think anything can condition your body for what we did," he said. "You have no clue until you actually do it."
The wind, which ranged from 23 to 46 mph, didn't help either that day.
"This particular day, the wind was horrible," James said. "The head wind, going up hill for five miles - it was like somebody holding a hand at your forehead while you're walking."
Sgt. William Hacker and Staff Sgt. Peter Allan, also from the 509th Legends, agreed the sharp incline, in combination with strong winds and the multiple terrains, made the march that much more difficult.
"There are numerous walls you get to when you're rucking, and going up those hills was one of my walls," said Hacker. "At mile 9, there was a 3-mile hill with a 4 percent incline and strong wind in our faces - cresting that hill was pretty tough."
Allan said at mile 24, when the team got off the hardball road, they stepped into 6-7 inches deep of sand.
"People really underestimate the difference between walking on hard surfaces compared to a really soft surface," Allan said.
Sgt. William Pfeifer of the Legends said the miles seem to get longer during the last stretch.
"You look down the path and you see massive amounts of people in the distance and you say to yourself, 'I'm going to be there in a few minutes,'" he said. "But getting from one mile to the next feels a lot longer than it actually takes."
What inspired the Soldiers to continue the march was not only their fellow team mates, but seeing the remaining survivors of the march, many of them in their 90s. Sixteen survivors attended the event and were seen throughout the course, greeting participants. One survivor, 94-year-old Ben Skardon, walked 9 of the 26.2 miles of the march.
"That was one of the inspiring things about the whole experience," said James "Seeing the Bataan survivors that were actually there, at the start of the course, shaking everyone's hands and throughout the course. It made you realize whom you were doing it for."
Thinking about the conditions the Death March survivors went through motivated Hacker and Pfc. Anthony Smith from the Polk Heroes to keep going.
"As you're going through the march, it's just you and 26 miles, you have your team mates of course, but in your mind, you're constantly recalling what the actual Bataan Death march survivors went through," said Smith.
Hacker said seeing the veterans with his own eyes was a motivating experience and remembering that the survivors walked 60 miles with no food or water kept him motivated.
Both teams completed the march. Out of 44 teams in their division, the Heroes placed 16th at 8 hours, 2 minutes and 27 seconds, and the Legends placed 23rd at 9 hours, 4 minutes and 27 seconds.
While each Soldier had different reasons for participating in the march, they all agree on the importance of remembering the sacrifices of the survivors.
"It's good to remember those who have served before us," said Legends team mate Sgt. 1st Class James Dean. "Around 15-20 survivors have died since the last Memorial Death march, so if we don't continue to participate, history will be forgotten."