By Adriana Salas and Miriam U. RodriguezMarch 17, 2013
WHITE SANDS MISSILE RANGE, N.M. (March 17, 2013) -- Nearly 6,000 marchers braved the 35-mile-per-hour winds during the 24th annual Bataan Memorial Death March held today, at White Sands Missile Range.
Prior to beginning their 26.2 mile march, or the honorary 14.2 mile course, the marchers were able to shake hands with the 12 survivors who are well into their 80s and 90s.
"Be safe and enjoy it but just remember the reason for which we are joined here today, for our Bataan survivors. We do care, your life matters and it meant much then and it will continue to mean much to us," said Brig. Gen. Gwen Bingham, White Sands Missile Range commander, prior to the start of the race.
The memorial march honors the lives of World War II Soldiers who endured the Bataan Death March, April 9, 1942. The grueling march occurred as a result of thousands of American and Filipino service members surrendering to the Japanese forces. The men were forced to walk through an 80-mile stretch of land without being able to stop for a drink of water or rest.
The result for those who attempted to replenish themselves was immediate death, several service members died during the trek. The service members who survived endured much more suffering as prisoners of war. The men who survived the POW camps were then placed on ships that were so compacted many suffocated to death.
"Let a new cry be heard that we gathered here today most certainly give a damn and that we will keep the story of Bataan alive," said Mistress of Ceremony Cammy Montoya.
The events for the march began on Saturday and included an opportunity for marchers to hear first-hand accounts of the events from the 12 survivors. The local New Mexico State University ROTC Bataan Battalion also presented a slideshow of the history of the events, and a film titled Forgotten Soldiers, about the suffering the prisoner's endured was also presented. This year a documentary was shown after the film called, Bataan: The Making of a Memory that talks about the history of a Bataan statue that is now displayed at Veteran's Park in neighboring Las Cruces, N.M.
"Last night I saw the film, "Forgotten Soldiers," and it made me believe in and know why I joined the Army 21 years ago," Bingham said. "We want to say a mighty 'thank you' to those who have served and those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice."
The survivors who attended this year's events include: Julio Barela, Harold A. Bergbower, Valdemar "Val" DeHerrera, William Lyle "Bill" Eldridge, Glenn D. Frazier, William C. "Bill" Overmier, Oscar L. Leonard, John L. Mims, Eugene William "Gene" Schmitz, Ben Skardon, Henry G. "Grady" Stanley and Richard Allen Trask.
For the sixth year in a row, 95-year-old Bataan Death March survivor Ben Skardon and his team, affectionately known as "Ben's Brigade," walked a portion of the march. After finishing the march, Skardon sat down to sign autographs for local supporters.
"It served the purpose. I dragged 57 years ago and I dragged the last five miles today," Skardon said after finishing the eight and a half miles.
Several marchers who participated in the event had a personal story that motivated them to endure the long miles of hilly desert terrain. From celebrating a successful double lung transplant to honoring the lives of a Bataan Prisoners of War who were close to them, the event brought a sense of camaraderie to those who were hoping to find peace and solace during their long journey.
"I want to give back to the survivors who went through Bataan. I'm going to try and not die today," said Ken Weinert, a wounded warrior participant.