“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.