WHITE SANDS MISSILE RANGE, N.M. (Feb. 5, 2016) -- The 27th annual Bataan Memorial Death March is gearing up to step into another record-breaking year at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico, March 20. The event is an active history lesson and a true test of endurance.
Considered one of the hardest marathon-length routes in the United States, participants come from all over the world to honor the Bataan fallen and World War II survivors.
"They stand as a living testament to the memory of Bataan," said White Sands Missile Range Commander Brig. Gen. Timothy Coffin during the 2015 opening ceremony. "They faced physical and spiritual hardships that for many were too great to bear. The legacy of the march, which has brought us here today, keeps its history alive and ensures the sacrifices made and lessons learned are not forgotten."
The story of the Bataan Death March began April 9, 1942, when around 75,000 Filipino and U.S. Soldiers were surrendered to Japanese forces. U.S. service members were from the Army, Army Air Corp, Navy and Marines. Among those seized were members of the 200th Coast Artillery, New Mexico National Guard. The prisoners were forced to march approximately 100 kilometers north to Nueva Ecija to Camp O'Donnell, a prison camp, in the scorching heat through the Philippine jungles.
One of those brave men who survived the march is retired Col. Ben Skardon, a 97-year-old Bataan survivor, who has marched 8.5 miles for the last eight years during the Bataan Memorial Death March.
"Coming to WSMR [White Sands Missile Range] is now my pilgrimage," Skardon said. "I'm privileged to be able to make my eighth trip to White Sands. I learned how easy it is to die when you lose the will to live."
Skardon was 24 years old and weighed 90 pounds at the time of rescue. He attributes his survival to two fellow Soldiers and Clemson graduates, Henry Leitner and Otis Morgan, who cared for him when he fell ill during the march. Before they were forced to march, Skardon said he hid away a can of condensed milk and his Clemson ring in a piece of cloth. He would take sips of the condensed milk during the march and traded his ring for a chicken and a can of ham.
In his honor, every year some of the participants carry cans of condensed milk signed by Skardon.
The prisoners of war were randomly beaten and denied food and water for days. Thousands died and those who fell behind were executed. Those who survived the march faced the hardships of a prisoner of war camp. The march became known as the Bataan Death March.
"They disrupted the enemy's timetable," said Margaret Garcia, daughter of deceased Bataan Memorial Death March survivor Evans Garcia. "They crippled the Japanese War efforts. They kept the faith. They held on, dug deep, and found a reservation of strength and courage. If dad was here today he'd say… 'well it wasn't all bad. Let me tell you the pros.'"
During the 2015 memorial march, 10 Bataan survivors shook every participants' hand at the start and finish line. Seven Bataan survivors plan to attend the 2016 Bataan Memorial Death March.
One of the participants in 2015 was Cadet Sgt. Juan Carlos Estremadoyro-Fort, an 18-year-old cadet sergeant from the New Mexico Military Institute, who shook hands with Bataan survivors after he finished his first marathon-length run in a little over three hours.
Thirsty, hungry and with a slight cramp in his right leg he walked straight to the Bataan survivors to say thank you.
"For me it's a reminder of those a long time ago who sacrificed so much for their country and today for those still serving all over the world," Estremadoyro-Fort said.
Since its inception in 1989, the Bataan Memorial Death March has grown from about 100 to more than 12,000 marchers, spectators and volunteers from around the world. The march is a military event but many civilians and athletes come to WSMR to take the challenge or volunteer.
Lisa Frankson, Family and Morale Welfare and Recreation Bataan March, or FMWR, director, said that without the battalion of more than 1,200 volunteers the annual Bataan Memorial Death March would not exist.
"We don't have enough staff to support this size event," she said. "It is critical that we have volunteers. It wouldn't happen without them. The amount of support and hours they give can't be measured."
Frankson also said the volunteer-age groups vary but every year more and more younger volunteers can be seen all over the Bataan route.
"It's very unique for the younger generation to volunteer for something like this," she said. "The fact that they are here in mass is wonderful and inspiring. They get it and it gives you hope."
The 2015 Bataan Memorial Death March also raised 21,679 pounds of non-perishable food donated by marchers in the heavy category, who carried the non-perishable food in their packs. Every year the food is donated to the Las Cruces Roadrunner Food Bank.
Marchers can select between two routes, the full 26.2 miles or 14.2 miles. Participants can choose to participate in the heavy category, which requires you to carry a pack that weighs more than 35 pounds, or the light category which has no weight requirements. Participants in the runners category, state every year how much of an endurance test the 1,400-foot elevation climb and the "Sand Pit" are to accomplish.
Military or civilian teams of five can also take on the challenge. Staff Sgt. David Esquivel, Army combat engineer, participated in the 2015 Bataan March with his 13-year-old son Andrew.
"He just asked me one day if he could do it and I started training him up for it," Esquivel said. "My wife was on board, so my Family is fully supportive. I'm proud of him that at such a young age he wants to do something like this."
Esquivel began training for the event months before and highly encouraged participants to do some form of preparation.
"Be prepared mentally and physically. Go into it knowing you will finish and think of those who actually went through it," he said. "As with everything in the Army, preparation is key."
Each year information is sent to all of the military installations through their chain of command and through FMWR recreational channels to reach maximum military and Department of Defense personnel. The WSMR commanding general also sends challenge letters to general officers throughout the Army.
The 2016 Bataan Memorial Death March will feature a new timing system that will allow marchers and their Family members to receive accurate times throughout the course of the Bataan Memorial Death March through the use of a mobile application. Participants can download the "ITS YOUR RACE" application for mobile devices.