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.