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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.

No one really knows how many men marched, or how many died. Some say it was 60,000 Filipinos and 10,000 Americans who marched, and 10,000 that died. Men fell, were bayoneted, shot. Men were run over, run through, run into the ground. And the Japanese soldiers frequently ripped off dog tags, tossing them aside. The practice turned existence into a rough estimate.

The death toll wouldn't have been so horrendous if the troops were in better shape at the outset. When American and Filipino soldiers started north, they were already seriously compromised. While holding off Japanese forces for all those months, they had lived on smaller and smaller rations. Halves became quarters. A little bit of flour, sugar, canned milk, and meat. A thousand calories a day, maybe. Europe First. (Bataan Last.) When their rations weren't enough, the men killed their horses and mules, then killed fish with hand grenades. They boiled ravens and trapped iguanas, ate the crickets off the leaves and the leaves off the trees. As they got weaker, they picked up tropical diseases: malaria, dysentery, and beriberi–a deficiency of thiamine that causes feet and hands and balls to swell like udders.

"In prison camp, I had it so bad that I probably weighed 300 pounds," says Steele. "Mostly water." He even got beriberi in the head, so that when he woke up after sleeping on his side, one half of his head was bigger than the other.

Translated from Sinhalese, a language of Sri Lanka, beriberi means "I cannot, I cannot."

A "love-in." That's what Gerry Schurtz, who currently organizes the Bataan Memorial Death March and whose father died on the Japanese "Hell Ship" Oryoku Maru, calls the event. Young people patting old people on the back. Old people crying. Strangers hugging. Love of country, love of history. T-shirts read: "This land isn't free without the brave." Bumper stickers read: "If you don't get BEHIND our troops, get in FRONT of them." Peach-fuzzed Iraq vets walk by with two artificial legs, or bodies like Reggie Bush, in wife-beaters and baggy shorts. A British team huddles on the steps; one, wearing Desert Storm–style camo, says, "I was here last year, and the march was the hardest thing I've ever done."

Inside the community building, where participants register, crowds stand in line to meet survivors and get autographs. For a short time, the old men are like teen idols: Kind-faced Abel Ortega, dressed in a maroon uniform with yellow trim and a matching garrison cap, signs copies of his book, Courage on Bataan and Beyond. Glenn Frazier, with a white mustache and black leather vest, hands out flyers about his new book, Hell's Guest. He talks about how hatred is bad for the health. William Eldridge doesn't say a thing. John Mims, from Pinehurst, North Carolina, sits next to his rolling oxygen tank. Young women line up to shake his hand.

Many Bataan veterans credit their survival to luck–good and bad. You were in the right place at the right time, or the wrong place at the wrong time. Who's to say why the man next to you dies from malaria, and you don't? Why was that kid shot, and this kid wasn't? Everyone quickly learned to take the line of least resistance: Do what you're told, try not to be obvious, don't stop, don't fall.



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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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