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Backpacker Magazine – October 2008
Survivors of the Bataan death march overcame one of history's most grueling walks. What kept them on their feet? and could you do the same? every year, more than 4,000 people hike through the New Mexico desert to find out.
The men, even now, can't describe how hot it was on Bataan. There's no way to say it. Hot as the dickens. Hot enough to fry an egg. Hotter 'n hell. The heat couldn't be explained, only experienced. And it was torture: Sometimes, the Japanese guards halted columns of surrendered men, forced them to stand under the open, insistent sky for hours, hatless and withering. Someone dubbed this the "sun treatment." But it was better than getting bayoneted while lunging for a sip of fetid water from a ditch. Getting pistol-whipped for stumbling. Getting your teeth knocked out, like Private John L. Mims did, with a Coke bottle. "My mouth felt like a bag of glassware," he says. "I spit my teeth out, and some were hangin' on by half, broke." And then he kept marching through the heat.
I think about the temperature in Bataan as I walk through the 85-degree New Mexico desert. I've had a lot of time to think since I woke up this morning on an army-green cot, lined up with 4,000 others, and started the 26.2-mile Bataan Memorial Death March. The annual event commemorates the original Bataan Death March, one of the greatest survival episodes in history. In comparison, of course, calling this a death march is laughable. I can see buildings on White Sands Missile Range. I can hear semis rumbling along US 70, heading up and over the Organ Mountains. Sometimes, I pass guys in fatigues and women wearing spandex. Sometimes, they pass me. "Power through, ma'am," the men say. Ma'am.
But after seven hours, my feet feel like roadkill and my shoulders–thanks to a 38-pound pack–are grousing, big time. For a moment, I wonder if I'm going to make it. I'd been warned about how tough the Memorial Death March is. How boot-camp-proof Marines often don't finish. I signed up as a way to test myself. To push my physical and mental limits and to answer, admittedly under controlled conditions, the question we all wonder: Do I truly have what it takes? Equally important, I wanted the opportunity to meet and learn from the real Bataan survivors–the soldiers who trudged for 70 miles with no food or water, who were beaten for slowing down, and who kept walking through that awful heat when they were sure they couldn't take another step.
It's an opportunity that won't be available much longer. The World War II veterans, now in their frail and wobbly late 80s and early 90s, know they're on the brink. And after trying for decades to forget what they went through, suddenly they don't want to be forgotten. They come to White Sands every year to be commemorated, to be honored. They want us, maybe, to feel a small part of what they experienced and wonder to ourselves if we could have made it. The Memorial Death March is a way of meeting in the middle for a shared glimpse, a mere taste, of suffering and survival.
About 15 miles in, I pass Army Aircorpsman Ben Steele, 91, who had been driven here so he could cheer marchers along. As if we deserve cheers from him. When he returned from Bataan, Steele painted what he'd seen–Filipinos throwing biscuits to POWs along the road from Mariveles to Camp O'Donnell; soldiers collapsed in the dust–because it took a generation before he could talk about it. "How're your feet?" Steele asks. He grins and teeters up to give me a hug.
"I'm getting a few blisters." I say it, then feel stupid. The whole contrivance of what I'm doing compared to what these men endured is almost embarrassing.