Retired U.S. Army Col. Ben Skardon was 24 years-old when he was forced to surrender to Japanese forces and march over 70 miles to their first Prisoner of War camps, now 95 years later, Skardon voluntarily marched for 8.5 miles in honor of his fallen comrades during the 2017 annual Bataan Memorial Death March, March 19. This is Skardon's tenth year participating in the march.
"It feels like no other place in the world," Skardon said. "I can breathe air and there's friendly faces everywhere, I can't beat that! This is my tenth time so I'm an expert."
Skardon started marching, again, when he was 89 years old. He had heard about the memorial event through retired U.S. Army Col. Gerry Schurz, an avid proponent of the march because his father and uncle survived the march but were killed in hellships. He first attended the event in 2007 with his grandson, he said he was so moved by the event that when he finished shaking hands with the marchers and when all the marchers had passed the starting line, he started marching too. That year he only did five miles because he hadn't trained nor did he have the proper shoes.
The next year Skardon returned, with a slightly larger group and was ready to march, he marched 8.5 miles that year. After that, his group continually began to grow every year. His team is now affectionately known as "Ben's Brigade" and they all don Clemson orange shirts with Skardon's photo as a brigade commander.
Skardon usually stops at every mile marker to take photos and make a short speech but as the years go he sometimes passes a few mile markers so as not to lose his momentum. His brigade always looks to him for instruction when they reach a mile marker and Skardon either stops with them or gives a hand signal and says "oosh" which is what he said the Japanese would tell them when they wanted them to continue forward after breaks, or speed up.
Skardon makes it clear that he does not hold any grudges against the Japanese and he even resents the battle cry which ends with "nobody gives a damn." In previous years Skardon said he knew people cared, they were just in a bad situation. When Skardon returned, having endured Prisoner of War camps, loss of fallen comrades, disease and hellships, he moved on and became an English professor at Clemson University, where he was once a student. Skardon retired in the mid-80s but the school still holds ring ceremonies where Skardon's war stories bring a greater meaning to the ring.
He said the ring helped him survive at his weakest moment. His fellow Clemson comrades, Henry Leitner and Otis Morgan cared for him and traded his Clemson ring, which he was able to hide throughout the march, for food they used to help nourish Skardon. The two Soldiers hand fed Skardon and cared him back to health. Unfortunately, they never made it back home and Skardon pays homage to them at least once throughout his march. He either falls silent thinking about them or commemorates a mile for them.
Skardon said the march is a "solemn pilgrimage" for him. A way to heal and keep the memories of his fellow Soldiers alive. This year was especially difficult for Skardon, not because he is 99, and not because he just got over the flu a month ago which required a hospital visit, but because this year's event was 10 degrees hotter than events past with no cloud in sight. Unlike his past marches, this year Skardon stopped regularly to talk to people and sat down at water points.
"I want to tell you how much we appreciate you," Skardon said to water point volunteers. "This is my tenth time and I know you sit here waiting in the sun for me."
Though the brigade sometimes meets with march stragglers, for the most part, Skardon and the brigade fall about 30 minutes behind the last marcher. Many of the brigade members weren't sure if he would make it to his usual 8.5 mile stopping point. However, slowly but surely he continued to reach each mile and never mentioned anything about quitting, instead he talked about his love for females.
"I'm only 99 and 2/3 years old so that hangs on me a little bit," Skardon said. "But, I can still appreciate feminine beauty."
The last two miles of his pilgrimage are uphill and on loose sand, he relies on the gentle push of the medic who was assigned to him in years past and the cadet assigned to him from the local university. Though this year was a much more difficult journey than in years past, Skardon still took the time to make an impassioned speech at the last mile marker.
"Our destiny is right here," Skardon said to his brigade at the 8-mile marker. "Now, when we spread out the integrity of this whole group is lost. I know some of you come back every year but it's getting now that every year it's really hard coming up. What I want to say is thank you…I can't tell you, personally, how much it has meant to me…it touches me every time I look around and see you."
Skardon plans to return again next year at 100 years-old for his 11th march.