WHITE SANDS MISSILE RANGE, N.M. -- First Lt. Sally Myers became part of a legacy honoring Ben Skardon and the thousands of service members of the Bataan Death March on a cold, dark Sunday morning when she sang the national anthem during the opening ceremony for the Bataan Memorial Death March.
It didn't go as planned, but it turned out perfect. The family planned to keep it a secret that his grandniece would be singing "The Star Spangled Banner," but Myers hadn't planned on coming down with a really bad cold the week of the march.
Skardon prompted letting the cat out of the bag during a family dinner the night before opening ceremony. The 101-year-old Bataan Death March survivor began talking about Myers' recent deployment to Afghanistan and her track record of singing the national anthem as a cadet at West Point, at her duty station at Fort Bragg, N.C., and while deployed as an Army engineer in Afghanistan.
"We were going to keep it a secret, but after that I told him, 'I'm actually going to be singing the national anthem tomorrow, too.' He was really, really excited when I told him, and he was so funny. He raised his fists and said, "Hooah!'"
But early next morning, though, event organizers weren't sure if Myers would be able to sing, and were searching for an alternate. However, a sniffling Myers soon showed up with tissue in tow, determined to give it a go.
She faltered on the first few notes, but quickly found her voice and finished with a strong and clear voice heard before a record 8,639 military and civilian marchers from all 50 states and 12 countries.
"It was nerve-wracking because I've had a really bad cold, but it was very humbling to sing in front of Uncle Ben," Myers said a few hours later while escorting Skardon on his annual trek to Mile Marker 8 on the Bataan Memorial Death March. Myers made a point to deflect attention away from her to and to her granduncle.
"I really don't want it to be about me. I want it to be about him, because he is an amazing man," said Myers.
"It's amazing what he went through. It's nothing that anybody in the Army today can really compare with or comprehend. He is a legend to so many. It's such an honor to be a part of his family and carry on this legacy of the Army and service.
"I love being able to serve, knowing that he and the rest of my family have served. It's very humbling. This is all for Uncle Ben, and I'm very proud to be his grandniece."
When asked about his grandniece's performance as he neared Mile Marker 8, Skardon, who is known for his quick wit, replied:
"I was singing along with her. I thought she jazzed it up a little bit. But, you know, she's my grandniece," he said with a smile.
ABOUT BEN SKARDON:
Ben Skardon is a Clemson, S.C., native who served with the 92nd Infantry Regiment while stationed in the Philippines in 1942 with a battalion of Filipino Army recruits.
When Skardon was surrendered to the Japanese, he was able to sneak a can of sweetened condensed milk into his pocket before the Bataan Death March began. He said that can of milk helped save his life along the 70-mile march to a prisoner of war camp.
At his "lowest point," Skardon suffered from beriberi, malaria, diarrhea and his eyes were sealed shut with discharge from an eye infection. He could barely swallow. Two of his fellow prisoners of war spoon-fed him, cleansed his eyes, carried him to an open latrine and bathed him before he was returned to their shack in the POW camp.
One of his buddies spoke some Japanese and made it known that a ring was available in exchange for food. That ring was Skardon's Clemson University class ring that he had managed to hide during imprisonment. The food that was acquired helped improve his health.
After the war, Skardon returned to his alma mater where he taught English courses until his retirement in 1982.
Every year Skardon looks forward to the 8-mile march during the Bataan Memorial Death March. He marches with a group of friends and family known as Ben's Brigade. During the march, a member of his brigade carries a can of milk and his "new" Clemson class ring.
ABOUT THE BATAAN DEATH MARCH:
After Gen. Douglas MacArthur ordered U.S. service members defending the Philippines 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.