By Staff reportSeptember 30, 2013
WHITE SANDS MISSILE RANGE, N.M. -- Among the nearly 6,000 participants of the 26.2-miles 24th Annual Bataan Memorial Death March that took place March 17 at White Sands Missile Range were two U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command/Army Forces Strategic Command employees.
While individuals march for many reasons, all are there to remember the thousands of American and Filipino men who endured and died during the Bataan Death March. T.K. Hunter, SMDC's G-39, and Bill "Blue" Murray, G-31, marched to honor one Soldier in particular - Pvt. Willard Kitchens, a distant cousin of Hunter's wife, Becky.
Kitchens was a member of the 31st Infantry Regiment, an all-American unit fighting on the Bataan peninsula. Kitchens was born in 1911 near Lufkin, Texas, in Angelina County. He was a young single farmer who enlisted for the Philippine Department in February1941, prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
Kitchens survived the death march, but died shortly after his 32nd birthday after about 10 months of captivity in the Japanese Prisoner of War camp at Cabanatuan. Almost 1,600 members of the 31st Infantry Regiment surrendered to the Japanese, and when liberation came in 1945, nearly 1,000 had perished.
During their captivity at the Cabanatuan POW Camp, Lt. Col. Jasper Brady and Maj. Marshall Hurt covertly compiled a thorough roster of those who had served with the regiment. This roster was recovered by the 6th Ranger Battalion during the liberation of Cabanatuan. Kitchens' name was on that list.
On April 9, 1942, American and Filipino forces surrendered to the Imperial Japanese Army following nearly three months of fighting to defend the Bataan peninsula. The men fought in a malaria-infested region, surviving on half or quarter rations with little or no medical help. The medicine supply was exhausted by early February, and Soldiers had to cope with diseases ranging from malaria, diphtheria, and dysentery and vitamin deficiency.
The promised reinforcements never came, so they became known as the "Battling Bastards of Bataan; No Mama, No Papa, No Uncle Sam." These men were then forced to march 60-80 miles under grueling circumstances.
Thousands died because of their weakened physical condition, marching in extreme heat with little to no water or rest, and the brutal treatment by their captors. The "Death March" was actually a series of marches lasting from five to nine days depending on where in the peninsula the captive began his march. The forces on Corregidor did not surrender until May 1942, so they were not subjected to the Death March.
This year, 12 survivors were present to tell first-hand accounts of their experiences. Some of these men, now in their 80s and 90s, were also at the starting line to support the marchers.
Participants in the march have two choices for their route. There's a 26.2-mile full route and a 14.2-mile honorary route for those who want to memorialize Bataan POWs but do not wish to march the full route. There are no awards for the honorary march. There were also several competition categories: Male Individual Military, Female Individual Military, Male Individual ROTC, Female Individual ROTC, Male Individual Civilian, Female Individual Civilian, Military Team, and Civilian Team. The memorial march began on the White Sands Missile Range main post then crossed a hilly, rocky and sandy desert terrain with elevation changes of 4,100 to 5,300 feet.
Registration for the 25th Annual Bataan Memorial Death March will begin in mid-November, and the march is scheduled for March 23, 2014. See http://www.bataanmarch.com for more information.