By Kari Hawkins, Redstone Rocket StaffJanuary 22, 2009
On March 29, Lt. Col. Ray Pickering will be taking a step back in time on a marathon course that draws more than 4,000 runners and walkers every year.
Pickering is planning to participate in the Bataan Memorial Death March at White Sands Missile Range, N.M., regarded by Marathon Guide as one of the top 30 marathons in the U.S. He will walk the course with his 75-year-old father.
But the 20th annual historical event will be more than a recognition of the determination and fortitude of World War II veterans who defended the Philippine Islands, were forced to surrender to the Japanese and then were marched on a brutal 70-mile trek through rough jungle terrain and tropical heat to prison camps. For Pickering, it will also be a reminder of what one college ROTC student can do with the support of his unit and his determination to make a difference.
Pickering, now a product manager with Infrared Countermeasures, PEO-Intelligence Electronic Warfare and Sensors, at Redstone Arsenal, started the Bataan Memorial Death March while an ROTC student at New Mexico State University.
"I was a senior and the corps commander of ROTC. I needed one more credit hour to complete my degree. I offered up the idea of developing the Bataan Memorial Death March to get that hour of credit," Pickering said.
"I was enlisted and when I served in Germany there were two big memorial marches there in remembrance of World War II. I was born and raised in Las Cruces, N.M., (the home of New Mexico State University) and I remember my third-grade teacher telling us about the Bataan Death March. There's also a memorial to the march in Las Cruces."'
Pickering's hometown is important to the story of the Bataan Death March because many Soldiers of the 200th Coast Artillery, New Mexico National Guard, based in Las Cruces, were among the Army, Army Air Corps, Navy and Marine servicemembers who fought and died during the Battle of Bataan while defending the islands of Luzon, Corregidor and the harbor defense forts of the Philippines.
"The Philippines were attacked the same day as Pearl Harbor," Pickering said. "But the U.S. war effort was mainly focused in Europe. American and Filipino Soldiers fought with the Japanese on the Philippine Islands for three months. When they ran out of ammunition, food and medicine, their commanding general surrendered the forces. It was the largest military surrender in history."
That surrender to the Japanese was on April 9, 1942. It was the beginning of a 70-mile march for 75,000 American and Filipino prisoners of war - many already suffering from malaria and surviving on half or quarter rations -- from the Bataan peninsula to prison camps.
Along the route, prisoners were beheaded, shot, beaten with rifle butts, stabbed with bayonets, raped, disemboweled and starved while being forced to continually march for nearly a week in tropical heat. Prisoners who protested or who fell along the route were immediately killed. It is estimated that only 54,000 of the 72,000 prisoners reached the prison camps.
"The Japanese hated anyone who surrendered," Pickering said. "New Mexico suffered the largest number of casualties per capita from World War II. Those who were eventually liberated suffered physically and mentally, and half died within the first year of liberation.
"Those who survived suffered because many were ashamed that they were part of the largest surrender in history. But their three months of fighting made a difference in the war in the Pacific. When the Japanese attacked the Philippines, the plan was to take the islands in three weeks and then go on to Australia. The Americans stopped that plan."
When Pickering first introduced his cadre to the idea of a Bataan Memorial Death March, his fellow ROTC cadets and adviser weren't enthusiastic about the idea. Pickering's adviser even challenged him to do a pilot march; and if there were 25 participants from the university's Army and Air Force ROTC programs, he would give Pickering a free pizza each month until graduation.
Only 24 participants showed up for the pilot march and Pickering lost his challenge. But he gained the determination to work even harder to make the march a success. The next year - the first year of the marathon - there were 136 participants. It has grown every year since.
One of the standouts of the march is that veterans of the Bataan Death March encourage the walkers and runners along the route. Last year, 23 WW II veterans were on hand for the event.
"At dawn, there is a mountain range ceremony to start the marathon. There is a roll call of all the veterans who were alive and at the marathon the year before. From that roll call you can see how many of those veterans have passed away," said Pickering, who has only missed eight marches. "When those veterans all die, the nature of the march will change."
The original march route took its participants through a rigorous pass on land that is part of the state's Bureau of Land Management. Over the years, concerns about accidents along the ridge increased as the number of marathoners increased. In 1992, the route was changed so that the entire course is now on the White Sands Missile Range.
"It's considered one of the toughest marathons," Pickering said. "It is at a high altitude. It has a lot of hilly desert terrain. There are winds to contend with and you have to look out for snakes and spiders. And there is a sand pit at mile 21. It's physically tough and intense. It is not a marathon for a personal best.
"At the same time, it's one of the best history lessons you can ever give a kid. When you share a little bit of the pain, a little bit of the sweat, you feel a little of what they did."
Billed as "A Test of Endurance, An Active History Lesson," the march is still primarily a military event, with many high school and college ROTC units participating as well as active military. But many civilians also participate. They can march the Green route, which is the full 26.2-mile march, or the 15-mile Blue route. Awards are only given to participants of the Green route.
Pickering didn't participate in last year's march. But Paul Carter of the Hazardous Devices School and Ed Courtney of Infrared Countermeasures did complete the 2008 march.
"I'm retired military. I spent 10 years in the infantry and I'm used to going on hikes. I had heard about the march many years ago. I thought it was a very neat thing to do to honor the veterans who survived the Bataan Death March," Courtney said.
"Col. Pickering told me about what it was like to participate in the march. I called Paul Carter to tell him about it. We've known each other for nine years and we go to church together. We've both had significant health issues in the last couple of years. We were looking to get in shape and preparing for the march seemed a good way to do that. We were able to build up our endurance and stamina, and we lost a lot of weight."
The two started training together in November 2007, spending a lot of time on treadmills and hiking local greenways. They decided to enter the 2008 march in the easiest category - male civilian light, age 50 plus.
The weather during the 2008 march was comfortable in the high 70s and low 80s. But the course was dusty, across a lot of terrain and hilly.
"In Huntsville, we do a lot of flat speed marching. But out there you have a lot of inclines," Courtney said. "In one part of the march starting at the seven-mile mark there is a 5 percent grade uphill for six miles. We didn't plan for that length of incline.
"Then there was one and a half miles of ankle deep sand that you had to get through going up and down hills. We were really stressed. We managed to get through it. My time was a little over nine hours and Paul's was a little over 10. Some marathoners finished in three hours. That's incredible because of the terrain and conditions."
Courtney and Carter carried backpacks filled with water and snacks. There were stations along the route where marchers could get oranges, bananas and water. The marchers especially appreciated the WW II veterans who encouraged them along the route.
"There were parts of the march that became very much a mental challenge. But our inspiration was the veterans of the Bataan Death March. They are well into their 80s now. They positioned themselves on the route and shook our hands as we came by," Courtney said.
"When you saw them, you realized what they went through and you thought 'I'm not suffering anything like they did. I'm not going to stop. I want to honor them.'"
Courtney said there were also several amputee veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan that marched the course.
"They were making the hike, completing the hike. They gave us a lot of motivation and inspiration to stick with it and not give up," he said. "It was completely satisfying and gratifying to do this."
Because of the remoteness of the course, there are very few spectators. Participants can march or run as individuals, as individuals carrying 35-pound rucksacks and as teams.
"Participating as a team gives you a better feel of what happened on the death march because the team must finish the march together," Pickering said. "You can't leave any team members. If they are real slow, then the team is slow. You can carry them or whatever, but they must finish with you."
Neither Courtney or Carter will participate in the march this year. Courtney has already scheduled two church mission trips that will take up his leave time from work and Carter is just happy to have the march's commemorative T-shirt and dog tag from 2008. But Pickering plans to be there for this significant year in the memorial march's history.
"The march has grown so big. It's amazing how the march has continued," Pickering said. "I plan on doing the entire march with my dad. But it's a very personal march, and my dad and I will take it one step at a time."
Editor's note: The Bataan Memorial Death March is sponsored by White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico National State Parks and New Mexico State University. For more information or to register, visit its web site at www.bataanmarch.com.