By U.S. ArmyMarch 31, 2016
It was April of 1942, when U.S. Gen. Edward King Jr. surrendered to Japanese forces, leading to approximately 75,000 Filipino and American troops on the Bataan Peninsula, being forced to march 65 miles across the Philippines to prisoner-of-war camps.
The 65-mile trek typically took five days to complete in the intense heat, with thousands perishing along the way. This became known as the Bataan Death March.
For one team of Fort Leonard Wood Soldiers it was honoring these fallen individuals, and those who survived, that drove them to participate in the 27th annual Bataan Memorial Death March held March 20 at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico.
"Personally, I did it for the overall experience. The history involved, knowing the story of what actually happened in 1942, the survivors, just everything involved with it," said Sgt. 1st Class Robert Sepulveda, Company A, 2nd Battalion, 10th Infantry Regiment, drill sergeant. "It was an opportunity for me to go and be a part of it."
In addition to memorializing those who had fallen during the original march and in the prison camps, 11 survivors from the event were present for this year's memorial march. The team had the opportunity to meet five of them.
"It was an honor to meet them. To see all the ribbons on their chests, several purple hearts," said Capt. Dustin Dobbins, Company E, 2nd Bn., 10th Inf. Reg., commander. "It was an honor to meet someone who had gone through such a tragic thing that some people have never learned or totally forgot about."
Sepulveda echoed his sentiment.
"Being able to meet them and shake their hands, knowing what they survived compared to just some of the things that I've experienced since I've been in this world…it's just an overwhelming feeling," Sepulveda said. "It's always a very good feeling to meet living legends, it's always positive. It's always a really good feeling to know you've met people that have endured and survived a historical experience."
Dobbins said being able to participate in the 27th memorial march had special meaning to him.
"My grandfather was actually in World War II as part of the 1st Cav. Division that assisted the Marine Corps with the island hopping. It was a couple years after the death march, but that was my little connection to this," he said.
According to Sepulveda the event's physical challenge helped open his eyes to only a hint of what World War II-era Soldiers endured.
"My favorite part about it was getting that knowledge or understanding of, at the points where your feet start to hurt or when you're walking the four or five mile stretch uphill, you know they went further than we did; had to endure much more than we did and were pretty much tortured the whole way. It's an eye opener," Sepulveda said.
The members of the Fort Leonard Wood San Juan Chapter of the Infantry Association unofficially placed fourth in the Military Team Male Light category, with a time of a little more than eight hours, but they said it's not about the glory.
"We didn't do it for a time, a plaque, or a trophy," Dobbins said. "It was about honoring the people that did it for real and maybe the chance that we could meet a couple of them, which we did. But if we got fourth; that is kind of cool, too."
Both Dobbins and Sepulveda said they would do it again, and encourage others to participate.
"The whole eye-opening experience, being able to meet them and just knowing what they survived compared to this," said Sepulveda. "It's motivating, it gives you maybe more of a sense of purpose in doing what we do. Just knowing that there are others out there that have survived much more than we have. It makes me more proud to do what I do."