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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.

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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