CAMP HENRY, REPUBLIC OF KOREA – The sense of relief was fleeting among the Soldiers who crossed the finish line on Camp Henry, underneath a spray of water from a fire hose, after completing the 26.2 mile-long Bataan Memorial Death March.
Although they had accomplished a remarkable feat together as a team, they knew any pain they felt was insignificant compared to what the American and Philippine Soldiers experienced during the actual Bataan Death March in April 1942.
“In comparison to marching 70 miles, I can’t even fathom what they went through,” said Capt. Mario Jones, Distribution Management Center, 19th Expeditionary Sustainment Command. “The threat of falling off pace and getting shot, it’s just humbling.”
Honoring the memory and sacrifice of the Bataan Death March has inspired thousands of people to endure the memorial version of the March, held annually since 1989 at White Sands Missile Range, N.M. Due to the pandemic, this was the first time the Bataan Memorial Death March was held virtually, with dozens of organized marches taking place around the world.
The Daegu march was organized by Capt. Cathy Reyes from 19th ESC, whose grandfather survived the Bataan Death March. As a 2nd Lieutenant serving in the United States Army Forces in the Far East – a command created to incorporate the Philippine Armed Forces into the allied fight in the Pacific – Ernesto Guzman not only made it through the horror of the Bataan Death March, but stayed in the Army through the rank of Colonel before retiring.
“He’s been an inspiration to me, he’s the reason I joined the Army,” said Reyes, whom serves as the 19th ESC Schools and Training Officer in Charge. “His grit, his determination to push through is what pushes me now. His memory helps me every day.”
Reyes had previously honored her grandfather’s service by visiting the Philippine memorial in Bataan and seeing the actual route he and other Soldiers marched. But with the virtual march she saw an opportunity for a memorable team building event.
The Bataan Death March of 1941 began with the Japanese Imperial Army invasion of the Philippines, at the time a territory of the United States. After the vastly outnumbered U.S. and Philippine forces surrendered to the Japanese, the prisoners of war were forcibly moved from Bataan to Camp O’Donnell. Denied nearly any food and water during the march, the march was characterized by executions and torture; it is estimated nearly 600 Americans and over 15,000 Filipinos died before reaching Camp O’Donnell.
Starting in February, Reyes was joined by several other Soldiers to train for the long march, and the participation grew to include more than two dozen 19th ESC Soldiers.
“It’s led my team to become more unified to get to know each other,” said Reyes. “And knowing we’re going through this all together makes it all worth it.”
The Daegu march began with a safety briefing at 0500 on Camp Henry’s Victory Field, before a motivational speech from Reyes and Command Sgt. Maj. Walter Tagalicud, Command Sergeant Major, United States Forces Korea.
Tagalicud had heard about the Daegu march, and like Reyes, shared a link to the Bataan Death March as a Filipino-American serving in the Army. Marching with Tagalicud were Soldiers from the Philippine Armed Forces whom serve within United Nations Command.
“One thing that really inspired me was the people who had the drive to live, the effort to help one another survive and not be killed,” said Tagalicud. “We have each other as a team to help accomplish the mission. It’s important to remember their hardships and their sacrifice to their country.”
Setting out from Camp Henry, the teams of marchers followed the path of the Sincheon River in Daegu on a crisp spring day. Water points were set up every few miles, and participants often found themselves cheered on by Korean passersby on the trail.
It was a stark contrast from the White Sands version of the Bataan Memorial Death March.
“That was definitely a more grueling challenge walking through the sand, varying terrain and the dry heat,” said 1LT Katherine Kezon, Commanding General Aide de Camp, 19th ESC, whom marched in the event in 2017. “I definitely think it’s a meaningful experience and an amazing opportunity, getting to do this with people I work with and care about.”
The final leg of the long journey brought Soldiers back to Camp Henry, where a crowd was waiting for them and a plume of water from a firehose marked their finish. While the pain from several hours of marching was temporary, the memory of the Bataan Death March endures.
“Being able to celebrate that memory and do it with my brothers and sisters in arms is an honor,” said Jones. “Remembering your history makes you a better Soldier, better teammate and better person.”