WHITE SANDS MISSILE RANGE, N.M. -- Servicemembers and civilians from all over the world converged on White Sands Missile Range for the 22nd Annual Bataan Memorial Death March held March 27.
Breaking previous records the march saw more than 6,000 servicemembers and civilians from all 50 states and five foreign countries come to test range's normally quiet community to take part in the Bataan Memorial Death March.
Marchers walked the 26.6-mile course through the Missile Range, braving sun, heat and this year, blasting wind, to honor a group of Soldiers who endured much worse during World War II.
The march at White Sands honors American and Filipino servicemembers who fought to defend the Philippians from the invading Japanese military early in World War II. Soldiers, Airmen, Sailors and Marines were charged with defending the region while on reduced rations, using mostly outdated equipment and with virtually no air support.
These servicemembers numbering in the tens of thousands, and including the members of the 200th Coastal Artillery, New Mexico National Guard, were forced to surrender April 9, 1942. The Japanese, unprepared to accept such a large number of prisoners, forced them to march several days through the heat of the Philippians jungles.
Thousands of servicemembers died during march, overcome by the sweltering heat, all the while being denied food and water and being abused by their captors, who would execute any who fell behind. Following the march many more would die while being transferred to work camps back in Japan, as the transport ships they were on were not marked as prison ships and as a result were attacked by American aircraft and warships.
"Today we honor those veterans and those who did not redeploy with them when they returned home," said Brig. Gen. John Regan, commander of White Sands Missile Range.
This year's marchers were fortunate enough to have 15 veterans who survived the original death march in attendance, including retired Col. Ben Skardon, who joined the marchers for the first eight miles of the march. Skardon, now 93 first came out five years ago, and hasn't missed a march since.
"When I came out and saw how solemn and how focused it was, and how it affected me my family, I decided it would be best to come once a year," Skardon said.
Every year thousands come to the range to take part in the challenging hike that takes marchers through the main cantonment area and out into the historic installation's range areas where new tools for the warfighter are still in development.
Each marcher has their own reasons for marching, from a tradition established by their unit, to just a chance to honor those who came before them. For one marcher it was a little more personal, his unit having recently deployed to the Philippians on a training and humanitarian aid mission.
"We actually when to the sites of the prison camps and it was very historic to be on the actual grounds where those Soldiers were held captive, imprisoned, and tortured and it was amazing what some of those guys went through," said Sgt. Frank Arias, a section sergeant with Detachment 1 of the 613th Forward Support Company, New Mexico National Guard.
While there the company conducted training with Filipino units, who treated the New Mexico Soldiers like they were part of the family.
"The people out there and the Filipino Soldiers were very respectful and courteous to us and welcomed us like we were a part of their country," Arias said.