WHITE SANDS MISSILE RANGE, N.M. -- Over 8,400 marchers participated in the 29th annual Bataan Memorial Death March at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico, March 25, commemorating 76 years of the Bataan Death March.
"Everybody has their own motivation for why they are here to do this journey today," said White Sands Missile Range Commander Brig. Gen. Eric Sanchez at the start of the event.
"But I think it's important that we remember what this is truly all about," he continued. "It's about the survivors and those who are no longer here with us. So when things are getting tough out there on the course -- you want to give up, you've got blisters -- think about what these gentlemen here today went through and all those others that survived the Bataan Death March, or those who didn't survive, and hopefully that gives you the motivation to continue your journey."
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 surrendered to Japanese forces. The Americans were Army, Army Air Corps, Navy and Marines. Among those seized were members of the 200th Coast Artillery, New Mexico National Guard.
The survivors in attendance included:
• Harold Bergbower
• James Bollich
• Valdemar DeHerrera
• Paul Kerchum
• Oscar Leonard
• William Overmier
• Ben Skardon
The 26.2-mile Bataan Memorial Death March is set on the hilly, desert terrain, with sometimes unpredictable weather. Marchers compete in teams or individually. Some compete in the "heavy" division, carrying 35-pound rucksacks.
WSMR Garrison Commander Col. Dave Brown reminded participants that this is more than a marathon. "Why are you here? What motivates you?" he asked.
"When I put words to paper about what this (event) means, I think it is to properly honor the fallen, show due respect to the survivors and facilitate the rehabilitation of our wounded warriors," Brown said. "But more importantly each one of you is out here to challenge yourselves today by marching or running in honor of somebody or something that is important to you. You being here is important because it helps us remember the past and you are helping us tell the Army story each and every year.
"As you get around the course you are going to see about 2,000 volunteers that make this memorial march possible," he added. "Take the time to thank them for what they do."
Sanchez also thanked wounded warriors for their participation in the march. "Thank you for your sacrifices and what you've done for our great nation. You are an inspiration to all of us and you will continue to inspire the marchers out there."
As participants reached the finish line, they had the honor of being congratulated by survivors of the Bataan Death March.
Maj. Trisha Stavinoh was one of those who crossed the finish line early in the day and was greeted by Bataan Death March survivor Oscar Leonard.
"It makes me so happy to see him because he is such an inspiration," said Stavinoh, a sports dietician at Joint Base San Antonio.
1st Lt. Rebekah Mazany, a Marine Air Defense Control Officer from Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, North Carolina, attended a standing-room only event to hear Leonard speak the day prior.
"I was thinking about what he talked about yesterday, learning that he spent 42 months as a prisoner of war," said Mazany, who was in full uniform to run the 26.2-mile march in combat boots.
She ran her first Bataan Memorial Death March in 2008 while still in college. Since then, she has walked it once and ran the course on four other occasions.
"You don't get this opportunity anywhere. It's living history and a fleeting opportunity," she said.
The United States Air Force honored the survivors with a demonstration of American air power with a flyover of two F-16 Fighting Falcon jets from the 311th Fighter Squadron of the 54th Fighter Group based at Holloman Air Force Base, Alamogordo, New Mexico.