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Backpacker Magazine – October 2008

Walking Bataan: The Hardest Miles

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.

by: Evelyn Spence, Photos by Jen Judge

Marchers carrying 35-lb. packs cool off with misters.
Marchers carrying 35-lb. packs cool off with misters.
John Mims survived the Bataan Death March.
John Mims survived the Bataan Death March.
Carlos Montoya walked 11 days with no food or water.
Carlos Montoya walked 11 days with no food or water.
Warming up on White Sands Missile Range.
Warming up on White Sands Missile Range.
The march passes the Organ mountains.
The march passes the Organ mountains.
Ben Steele says optimism helped him keep moving.
Ben Steele says optimism helped him keep moving.
Veteran Glenn Frazier greets memorial marchers.
Veteran Glenn Frazier greets memorial marchers.
Blisters plague many memorial walkers.
Blisters plague many memorial walkers.

"You know how I made it through the Death March?" Steele asks. "I stole a sock off a dead guy. Every time we stopped, I rotated that sock. It saved me. Blisters literally killed people."

The Army ROTC unit at New Mexico State University started the Bataan Memorial Death March in 1989 to commemorate their own: Many of the 1,800 men from New Mexico's 515th and 200th Coast Artillery units who were sent to the Philippines in the fall of 1941 were captured and ruthlessly herded across Bataan. Fewer than half came back. The memorial march takes place in the open country around the headquarters of 3,200-square-mile White Sands Missile Range, where dun-colored buildings huddle under 8,990-foot Organ Needle in the Chihuahuan Desert. The course starts and finishes in front of the Frontier Club (think Elks-lodge-meets-Motel-6). It passes by the Missile Park, a gravel garden of vintage rockets pointed heavenward. Then through the Owens Road arroyo, where the sand gets fine and soft; up and around the dusty cone of Mineral Hill; and through the ankle-deep Sand Pit at around mile 22. Then back to the Frontier Club.

It's rough walking, to be sure, but 26 miles with aid stations and medical tents can't be too bad. So to enhance my pseudo-suffering, I decided to wear boots I'd put on once. And I entered the so-called Heavy category: Marchers carry 35-plus pounds over the entire marathon distance. Though even that seems trivial when you learn the complete story of the Bataan survivors.

In the fall of 1941, the United States sent troops to the Philippines to head off a Japanese buildup in the Pacific. After Pearl Harbor was bombed, Japan invaded the Philippines, pushing the American and Filipino soldiers down Luzon onto the dead-end of the Bataan Peninsula. Part of the problem: These Americans wore WWI-era helmets, carried 1903 Springfield rifles, and drove tanks with no recoil oil. They were simply outmatched by Japan's modern weapons.

In January 1942, President Roosevelt decided to spend his military budget on the war in Europe. Europe First, the policy was called. (Bataan Last, it implied.) War Secretary Henry Stimson put it this way: "There are times when men must die." In March, Roosevelt ordered General MacArthur to evacuate to Australia. The Americans on Bataan were abandoned. They came up with a rallying cry that's still shouted at the beginning of every Memorial Death March:

We're the battling bastards of Bataan
No mama, no papa, no Uncle Sam
No aunts, no uncles, no cousins, no nieces
No pills, no planes, no artillery pieces
And nobody gives a damn.

But they kept on fighting–until April 9, 1942, when General Edward King met with General Masaharu Homma and conceded. It was one of the low points in U.S. military history, the largest surrender ever on foreign soil. No one knew what to do. The Americans had never been instructed on how to lay down arms. The Japanese hadn't expected so many prisoners, didn't think they'd be so sick and wounded, thought it would be no problem to march them from Mariveles to Camp O'Donnell, a distance of about 70 miles. Even worse, the very idea of surrender was beyond them: In Bushido, the code of the Samurai, captives were regarded as subhuman–and often treated as such.



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READERS COMMENTS

Star Star Star
Ian
Dec 07, 2013

That is not the "marines oath" that's the Soldiers creed! Both soldiers and marines would be offended by your inaccuracy. Who's your editor?

Helen
Nov 09, 2011

I love this article. You are lucky and blessed to have had the opportunity to meet all of those heroes!

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