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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.

Carlos Montoya marched for 11 days, and during one quick break he sagged against a tree, trying to rest. A Japanese soldier ordered him–jabbing a bayonet–to move, and Montoya didn't. The guard yelled. Montoya prayed. The guard finally left him alone. Lucky.

But one man's luck is another's resourcefulness: Ben Skardon always walked in the middle of the column of four–all the farther from rifle butts and bayonets. Survival could be as simple as a few chlorine pills stashed in a pocket, a comfortable pair of shoes, a bottle of iodine. A stolen sock. One kid pulled the helmet off a puffed-up Filipino corpse, gave it a wipe, donned it. Skardon chugged a can of condensed milk before the March started–one more can than the next guy. The weak and the sick and the injured faltered, dropping from the front of the column to the middle to the sagging rear, where strangers would hold them up for a while, maybe, until their weight became too close to dead weight and they fell off the back and disappeared.

The lights come on with a pop at 4:00 a.m., three hours before the start. I'm in a gymnasium. The floor is covered with a gymnasium-size blue tarp. And the blue tarp is covered with men. Soldiers, hundreds of them, do their routines with their feet, their teeth, their hair. Most of them pull on fatigues and buff-colored lace-up boots, tighten their belts, lift their packs and set them down. Count out energy bars and eat bananas. They pack their stuff and fold up their beds and line things up in a row. I stumble around, trying to remember where I put my washcloth. By the time I heft my 38-pound pack and walk to the start, the gym is empty.

At the opening ceremony, thousands of men (and the occasional woman; only 49 female participants end up completing the Heavy march) mill around under klieg lights in the dark, eating muffins from plastic packages. An American flag, as long as a bus and hanging off a fire truck crane, flaps in the wind–which is already gusting warm and strong. The porta-potty lines reach 40 people deep.

We all line up while the color guard marches in, and someone reads off the names of all the Bataan survivors who have passed away since last year, and someone plays taps, and we belt out O Say Can You See, and then yell the oath of the Marines: I will always place the mission first. I will never accept defeat. I will never quit. I will never leave a fallen comrade. There's a lot of saluting and stiff-legged stomping of boots. The civilians–about a quarter of the total participants–slouch around, looking vaguely guilty.

I've never been particularly patriotic. Entitled is more like it: Of course my life is good. Of course I deserve it. Never mind that I haven't done anything to earn it. The Greatest Generation has always been an abstraction to me. Before today, I'd never spoken to a WWII survivor or really considered, beyond what was in my textbooks, the idea of sacrifice. Current and recent wars have left me disillusioned rather than inspired. But standing in a sea of creased camo and erect spines, the thought of putting my hand to my heart momentarily feels right. Not, perhaps, because I feel a sudden burning patriotism, but because I feel a profound and surprising tenderness for the men of Bataan. For my good fortune. And for the people around me who truly believe America is worth marching–not to mention dying–for.

And then the gun goes off. At the starting line, survivors sit in metal chairs, holding out crooked-knuckle hands to marchers. "Thank you, thank you," they say. They're thanking us. We're about to walk in a 26.2-mile circle with 12 water stops and six medical tents and 262 medical personnel, and the race organizers already gave us our medals–shaped like dog tags–in our registration packets. Yet Carlos Montoya, wearing a blue blazer and a white garrison cap, looks up at me and says, "You're my hero."



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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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