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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.

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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