WHITE SANDS MISSILE RANGE, N.M. -- The 75th anniversary of WWII's infamous Bataan Death March was commemorated by 7,200 participants who gathered in the wee morning hours for the 28th Bataan Memorial Death March, Sunday, March 19. Once again, retired Clemson University alumnus and professor emeritus Ben Skardon, 99 years young, was the oldest participant and the only survivor of the real Bataan Death March who walked in the event.
He walked eight and a half miles through the unforgiving New Mexico desert, with temperatures reaching 90 degrees, and refused to stop until he matched his distance from the previous nine years. Skardon is a Clemson institution in and of himself so Clemson orange was the color of choice for the 64 members of "Ben's Brigade" -- his die-hard support group made up of friends, family, former Clemson University students of his, and relatives of his fellow prisoners of war -- who accompanied him. The swarm of orange T-shirts was only given competition as Skardon crossed through several bright yellow fields of blooming California poppies between the four and six-mile markers.
Skardon stopped at each mile marker to address his Brigade, usually with a joke or the cry "Oosh!" which is the command he says his Japanese captors gave to keep moving.
As the temperature rose, members of Ben's Brigade took turns holding an American flag at angles that would shade him. He moved at his normal pace of two miles an hour, but stopped to rest or talk to people several times between each mile marker - something he hadn't done in years past. Spirits rose as they reached one mile marker after another, but there was concern he might not make it the whole way this year. He had just recovered from a bout of the flu weeks earlier, and the temperatures were ten degrees hotter than in previous years. It would take nothing away from him if he couldn't go his traditional 8.5 miles again - if he only walked a mile it would still be an astounding feat - but nobody could question the power of his will either. He never mentioned quitting.
At mile marker six, he left the road to sit on a folding chair and rest in the shade of one of the support tents. The members of Ben's Brigade, themselves sweaty and tired at this point, gratefully accepted water and gatorade from the volunteers who had waited for them. Somebody put a wet handkerchief around Skardon's neck and handed him an orange slice to suck on. The two Army medics assigned to him took his vitals and suggested maybe he should take it easy on himself this year.
"Four minutes," he said.
Four minutes later, he stood up and walked on.
At mile marker eight, Ben's Brigade gathered around him one more time.
"Our destiny is right here," he told them. "What I want to say is thank you, and if I haven't already shaken hands with you, please shake my hand after this. I can't tell you, personally, how much this has meant to me, especially the new people who come out here for 8.5 miles. A few of you still go out and do more and that's more power to you - [but] the power in my feet has gone! I have two very stalwart gentleman [the Army medics] who are actually dragging me through to the finish line. It touches me every time I look around and see you. So, goodbye to a lot of you. This is the last point we'll all be together today. Once we get to the finish line, they take me to an air conditioned tent. You'll all have to sweat it out!"
At that point nobody in Ben's Brigade doubted he would reach his goal of 8.5 miles again. They weren't wrong. He crossed the finish line less fifteen minutes later.
The Bataan Memorial Death March honors a special group of World War II heroes responsible for the defense of the islands of Luzon, Corregidor and the harbor defense forts of the Philippines. On April 9, 1942, tens of thousands of American and Filipino Soldiers were forced to surrender to Japanese forces. The Americans were Army, Army Air Corps, Navy and Marines. Among those seized were large numbers of the 200th Coast Artillery, New Mexico National Guard -- the reason the memorial march is held in New Mexico.
Often overlooked are the four months of fierce fighting that took place before the American and Filipino forces surrendered. For instance, Skardon earned two Silver Stars and four Bronze stars during that short time span.
This was Skardon's 10th time walking in the march, which he considers a personal pilgrimage. He says it's his sacred responsibility to attend every year and walk with the thousands of others who come to honor his brothers-in-arms who didn't survive the real Bataan Death March or the years of confinement in prisoner of war camps that followed.
"Coming here is an obligation," he said. "I ought to do something, and the best way I know, physically, is to walk every time I get a chance in their memory."
He says nothing he does now, even at 99, can compare to the ultimate sacrifice his brothers-in-arms who didn't return from the war gave.
"The word 'hero' does not apply to me at all," he insists, quoting the Bible verse John 15:13: "Greater love has no man than this, than to lay down his life for his friends."