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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.

My end is obvious: where I started. But when the men got to the end of the Bataan Death March, it was just the beginning of their odyssey: They had to ride 24 miles in boxcars–packed so tight that if someone expired standing up, he wouldn't even fall to the ground. And then the men had to march eight more miles to Camp O'Donnell, where there was one water spigot for 10,000 prisoners and 29,000 men died–and the men who lived spent all of their time putting their friends in the ground.

After O'Donnell, the men were sent all over: Beverly Skardon ended up in the dark, crowded belly of the Oryoku Maru, which was accidentally attacked by Navy divebombers. Glenn Frazier started on the Tabayas Road Detail, then got sent to Bilibid Prison in Manila, then Osaka, then Tsuraga. Ben Steele's weight dropped from 170 pounds to 82. The men were in prison for years, tortured, starved. They laid their jabbing bones on bamboo slats. They watched as their friends took on million-mile stares, then gave up. But these men somehow persevered–with their faith or their hatred or their hormones. "I was given the Last Sacrament three times," says Steele.

At my last water stop, kids hand out cups filled with Lucky Charms and salty peanuts. The course goes straight for miles, then loops around the perimeter of the base, along a high wall next to some big peach-colored houses. When I turn the corner to the finish, a crowd four-deep cheers loud and long–though the winners passed by hours ago. I don't see any veterans. It's been a long day for them. They've shaken a lot of hands, deflected a lot of praise.

I stop into the medical tent to get my feet cleaned up. Next to me, there's a kid–maybe 19–lying on his stomach. And there's a blister on his foot as big as a sand dollar. A few cots away, someone passes out. The yell goes out: "We need fluids!"

That night, I eat at the Frontier Club–pasta and red sauce on metal trays, lemonade from a dining-hall soda machine. I sit with Steele and Ortega and Murphy. As we talk over the food, they talk about food: One of them describes a recipe for quan, a Filipino word that means "everything that's edible." Guffaws. Another remembers that he and his comrades made a pact that when they got out of Bataan, they'd buy a grocery store and fill it with food–then lock themselves inside and never, ever come out.

The men chuckle over the memory of a hunger I can't even imagine.

At the airport the next morning, I see a man so sunburned that his whole right leg is welted scarlet and wrapped in gauze. Soldiers with huge biceps and tight calves lie under benches with their feet taped, and twentysomethings limp through the terminal wearing Bataan Memorial Death March medals around their necks.

And I see Ben Steele, staring out the window, watching the planes go by as he grips his cane. He grins and gives me a hug, and he talks about the third sock and the beriberi and what, again, a group of Death March survivors discusses over dinner. "Glenn Frazier–now that guy can tell a tall tale," he says with a smile. I picture the men, safe and weathered and soft around the middle, laughing about hell.

Evelyn Spence is BACKPACKER's senior articles editor.



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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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