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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.

The men of Bataan didn't have SERE. They didn't get electrodes and manuals and simulations. In fact, it was only in the midst of WWII that the idea of teaching mental survival–as opposed to hard skills–became widespread: Outward Bound was started by educator Kurt Hahn in 1941, when he heard that young merchant seamen, torpedoed by German U-boats, weren't surviving at sea as well as their older comrades. They couldn't cope with life, Hahn thought. They lacked self-reliance and tenacity. Hahn devised a month-long training course out of Aberdovey, Wales, that was a mix of cross-country routefinding, expeditions across mountain ranges, small-boat instruction, rescue practice, and athletic competitions. It was like stress-inoculation training–similar, in some ways, to actual physical immunization. Bump into the edge of your possibility, endure, and end up stronger for the next difficult encounter. Hahn's motto was simple: Plus est en vous. There is more in you than you think.

After walking a mile or two down a sizzling paved road, around mile 18, my feet are on fire. It's worse than going uphill. My trekking poles click on concrete, my legs feel like lead. In my own sort of survival mode, I've resorted to listening to Justin Timberlake on my iPod. I can stop, of course.

Catch a van ride back to base and call it a day. Drop my pack, finish without weight, and get disqualified from my category. My physical pain is, in some ways, totally pointless: I'm not trying to stay alive. Adrenaline isn't surging to my heart, and emergency glucose stores are not flooding my muscles. The human instinct is to avoid pain, of course, but if pain is simply part of the path to survival, it must be ignored.

I manage to ignore it for 15 more minutes. When I pass a water stop at mile 20, I decide it's time to get help. An olive-green tent sits next to the road, plastic windows snapping in the wind. Soldiers lie on a row of cots in front of it. I drop my pack, sit down, and start untying my boots.

A medic squats in front of me. "What's the problem, ma'am?" Ma'am. I tell him about my blisters–a couple here, maybe a couple there.

We pull off my socks, then try pulling off the duct tape and Band-Aids. They stick to the blisters. The tape has caused new blisters next to the old blisters, and those blisters have also grown blisters. Some of them are as big as quarters. I'm amazed, and disappointed, at how wimpy my feet are–which reminds me of Ben Steele and his third sock. I've gone through six socks in seven hours and I have two dozen lesions.

"Um, let me get someone else here," says the medic. Another one comes over. She grabs a third. He calls the guy who's in charge of this tent. That guy runs to get his camera. After heated debate, they carry me inside the tent and lance a few of the biggest blisters. Stuff squirts out.

The whole process takes an hour. For some reason, it bothers me–though it hardly matters whether I finish in 8.5 hours or 9.5 hours. The athlete in me sees people walking by while I'm getting babied. The sage in me knows that I'm walking, and walking isn't racing, and it's about the journey rather than the destination. The momentary patriot in me thinks about the old men, and how they marched and marched and didn't know where the end was or what it was. They just put one foot in front of the other until even their fingernails and nosehairs were exhausted.



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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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