FORT CARSON, Colo. -- A group of World War II veterans was honored March 27 during the largest Bataan Memorial Death March at White Sands Missile Range, N.M.
A record-breaking 6,357 people registered for the 22nd Annual Bataan Memorial Death March and more than 6,000 participated, according to White Sands Missile Range officials. Fifteen Bataan survivors greeted marchers from across the United States, as well as the Philippines, Denmark, France, Canada and Germany.
The 26.2-mile hike began at 7 a.m. The marchers reached for a parting handshake from several Bataan veterans before crossing the start line, which activated their timing chips.
Sgt. Kevin Jenkins, Individual Replacement Training Company, 4th Infantry Division, thanked the survivors as he advanced in their honor for his first memorial march, wearing his Army combat uniform and a hydration pack. He had registered for the military light category; heavy required an additional 35-pound rucksack.
Jenkins joined thousands of marchers pushing through mountainous desert terrain - conquering tough headwinds, ankle-deep gravel and grueling uphill trails. Several aid stations along the way offered medical assistance, sports drinks, fruit, water and restrooms.
"I had blisters the size of drink coasters on the balls of my feet," said Jenkins, who finished in 6 hours, 45 minutes and 45 seconds.
"I cannot imagine walking like that for more than 60 miles, malnourished and without water."
The Bataan Memorial Death March remembers the atrocities endured by approximately 75,000 prisoners in the Philippines during World War II. After seizing the Bataan Peninsula in April 1942, Japanese fighters forced Filipino and U.S. captives through a brutal trek north, lasting about five days, covering about 65 miles.
The prisoners marched to Camp O'Donnell - dehydrated, starved and beaten. Japanese guards slashed stragglers with bayonets and shot others. Thousands died. A handful escaped into the jungle.
"It was probably the worst pain I've ever felt in my life," said Spc. Roy Wasbotten, IRT, 4th Inf. Div., explaining the commemorative march in southern New Mexico. Wasbotten had prepared for his first march with Jenkins.
Wasbotten took several breaks during the march and finished in 8 hours, 17 minutes and 18 seconds - covered in sweat and sand. He suffered deep leg soreness, especially in his hamstrings, but only minor blisters pierced his soles. He had protected his feet with a combination of dress socks and roll-on deodorant.
"We trained for about three months," said Wasbotten, "but it's something you should train for over an entire year." The Soldiers had combined resistance training at Fort Carson with hikes, such as Red Rock Canyon, Garden of the Gods, Cheyenne Mountain and Pikes Peak.
"I know I could have done a lot better," said Wasbotten, suggesting the march is mentally exhausting.
Wasbotten and Jenkins plan to register for the light category at the 23rd Annual Bataan Memorial Death March, with Family members and more Fort Carson Soldiers. With their introductory event behind them, they're set on improving their pace in the future while continuing to honor the Bataan veterans.
"If all your training is on flat ground, the march is going to hurt you," says Jenkins to anyone considering registration. "You have to log many miles uphill."