WHITE SANDS MISSILE RANGE, N.M. -- It was an emotional start to the 2019 Bataan Memorial Death March as Valdemar De Herrera, Paul Kerchum and Ben Skardon - three survivors from the actual Bataan Death March - sounded off during a symbolic roll call, followed by a moment of silence after calling the name of 12 fellow survivors who have died since the last memorial march.
"While you are out on the course today, I want you to remember why we conduct this event every year," said Col. Chris Ward, White Sands Missile Range Garrison Commander, during the opening ceremony.
"It is to honor heroes of the greatest generation - the heroes of the Bataan Death March, to honor these five men right here and their comrades who are no longer with us," said Ward. In addition to Herrera, Kerchum and Skardon, survivors attending included Harold Bergbower and James Bollich.
"As you walk through the desert terrain here, and you find yourself struggling today to get to the next water point or to overcome the pain in your body, remember what these great American and Philippine allies endured, knowing that when they reached the end of that march there would be more pain, suffering and possibly death. Tap into their courage to keep marching and to finish," said Ward.
Ward was addressing a record 8,639 enthusiastic military and civilian marchers watching the ceremony from a long serpentine starting line on a cold, clear morning with temperatures hovering just above freezing.
The marchers, and a few hundred runners, had traveled from all 50 states and 12 countries to participate in the march honoring U.S. and Filipino Soldiers defending the Philippines from an attack by Japan that began the day following the attack on Pearl Harbor.
After Gen. Douglas MacArthur ordered the defenders to withdraw to the Bataan peninsula, they held out more than four months in a malaria-infested region with scarce supplies and virtually no air or naval support until they were surrendered to Japanese forces on April 9, 1942.
Approximately 75,000 U.S. and Filipino service members marched for days in the scorching heat through the Philippine jungles. Thousands died. Those who survived the forced march faced years of hardship in prisoner-of-war camps.
Joining Ward in honoring the five survivors and their fallen comrades during the ceremony was U.S. Rep. Xochitl Torres Small (D-N.M.).
"We are here today, from all over the world, to honor the incredible heroes and survivors of Bataan," said Torres Small.
"What the soldiers of the Bataan Death March endured must never be forgotten. And by being here today, you are helping keep their memory and spirit alive. We stand stronger as a nation because of their sacrifice, and I am honored and humbled to be with you today," said Torres Small.
One of those keeping the memory alive was Warren Beard, a retired Army master sergeant who had traveled from The Village, Fla., to honor his uncle Joseph Beard who survived the Bataan Death March, but was killed afterward by a Japanese soldier during a work detail.
Beard never knew about the Bataan Memorial Death March until he began researching his uncle's military unit. Both Beard and his uncle served as infantrymen.
"And all of a sudden I came across this, the Bataan Memorial Death March," said Beard while waiting for the march to get underway. "I just had to do it."
Katie Monday also had a special person in mind as she waited nearby to begin. Her husband, Staff Sgt. Joshua Monday, is currently deployed, so Monday said she was marching her first Bataan "for myself and for him since he can be here, but we'll do it together after he returns. I'm scoping it out for us."
And she was also marching to honor to who died and survived the Bataan Death March. "That is a cause that shouldn't be forgotten," said Monday, from nearby Holloman Air Force Base.
Making her fourth Bataan Memorial Death March was Melissa Judkins, the Command Sgt. Major for Installation Management Command, who said it was "awesome" to be back.
"I'm looking forward to the camaraderie and being around people that enjoy the same things I do, and who want to give back to those who have served before," said Judkins.
Beside her was fellow Sheryl Lyon, the Command Sgt. Major for U.S. Army Cyber Command, who was making the march with her daughter.
"I am terribly excited and nervous as well. It is going to be a great day. I have great battle buddies with me, so we are going to have a great time. I look forward to watching people face their challenges and making it to the finish line."