Rugged March Recalls Wartime Heroism
By Douglas J. Gillert
American Forces Press Service
WHITE SANDS MISSILE RANGE, N.M., May 11, 1998 More than 1,900 walkers and runners honored the World War II heroes of Bataan during the 10th annual Bataan Death March Memorial here April 19.
Fifty-six years ago, Japanese forces invading the Philippines captured tens of thousands of American and Filipino defenders on Luzon and Corregidor islands. Weakened by malaria, reduced rations and no medical help, they were no match for the fresh enemy forces.
For days, their captors forced them to march through the dense, scorching Philippine jungle. Many died. Others who survived the march died or were wounded when unmarked enemy ships carrying them to distant prisoner of war camps were attacked by U.S. air and naval forces. Still others died in captivity.
"Each year, this march memorializes those men and women who suffered through the Bataan Death March," said Army Maj. Jon Lockey, White Sands Missile Range commander of troops. "It's our hope that the participants understand the history behind this march and contemplate it while they're out there on our 25-mile course. Maybe by the time they feel the pain and fatigue of this march, they'll begin to feel a little what it was like for those in the original Bataan Death March in April 1942."
The prisoners of Bataan were forced to cover more than 60 miles over several days -- without the benefit of advanced training and aid stations along the way. The Boy and Girl Scouts, Masons and others didn't volunteer to slice and hand out oranges to them like they did here. Still, by the end of this shorter, easier trek, plenty of the military and civilian participants had suffered blisters, dehydration, twisted ankles and knees, and sheer exhaustion.
"This is my first break," said Gerald Williams, as he sat on the ground and pulled on a fresh pair of snowy white sweat socks. Williams and his youthful cohorts from the New Mexico Military Institute, a high school in Roswell, N.M., were holding their own about seven miles through the rugged course. "The weather conditions are perfect, so I think we'll do pretty well," he said.
Participants from throughout the armed forces and from bases as far from the New Mexico desert as Rhode Island competed in 20 team and individual categories including "light" and "heavy" runners. Foreign competitors included British, German and Spanish soldiers. Both active duty and reserve units took part. Members of the California National Guard took particular pride in competing -- their unit history includes participation in the original forced march.At least one survivor of the real death march, 84-year-old Winston Shillito, competed again this year after completing the 1997 course in nine hours. Despite ideal weather conditions, however, he couldn't finish and was brought back to the main base tired but in good spirits.
White Sands Missile Range and the New Mexico National Guard cosponsor the march with the event's originator, New Mexico State University ROTC. Capt. Marianne Madrid of the missile range handled most of the arrangements including ensuring the course was properly laid out and marked.
"Sixty soldiers -- nearly all of the Army enlisted people assigned here -- helped get this set up," Madrid said the day before the march. "They've been putting in 12-hour days to make sure we can meet any contingency and pull this off smoothly."
Because the temperature is mild and there's no humidity, people don't sweat as much, so they might not realize they still are dehydrating. "We encouraged everyone to hydrate the day before the march and also throughout it," Madrid said. "We required the military participants to carry two full canteens of water with them, and also provided water stops along the course."
The sun hadn't risen when marchers assembled at the start area Sunday morning. National Guard Director Army Lt. Gen. Edward Baca delivered a brief address commemorating the heroes of Bataan and lauding this present-day memorial to them. The competition began at 6:30 a.m. with the sun still rising and temperatures hovering near 40 degrees. The sun stayed out, but the temperature at White Sands never got warmer than the low 70s, prompting one solitary walker at the 14-mile point to quip, "It's like a walk in the park."
Not for everybody. Bombardier McCallion, a British marathoner expected to compete for first place in the male runner light category, came up lame near the 12-mile mark and failed to finish. In the team heavy competition, where service members dressed in BDUs and combat boots and carried 35-pound rucksacks, later finishers struggled against the challenging White Sands terrain, finally hobbling across the finish line with blistered feet and aching limbs. One member of the team competing from Task Force Six at El Paso, Texas, even required an IV transfusion but managed to continue the march after medics duct-taped the needle to his arm.
Mike Rosier, an Army officer based at Fort Sill, Okla., said the course was more challenging than he'd anticipated. "I'm here with an eight-person team that trained in the Wichita Mountains, so we are all in good shape," Rosier said, as he paused near the 17-mile marker to treat a blister.
"Right now, we're a little ahead of pace," he said between labored breaths, "but we're going to have to slow down to have enough energy left to hike in."
Training paid big dividends for members of the New Mexico National Guard team. The Roadrunners placed first in the Team National Guard Light category, trotting across the finish line at 4:23:19, a full 12 minutes ahead of second place 151st Infantry Detachment, Indiana National Guard.
"The course was harder than I thought it would be," the Roadrunners' Mike Montoya said. "From Mile 6 to Mile 14, it was all uphill, and it forced us at certain points to walk instead of run. After that, it was just a gut check."
"For awhile we thought we could beat the Brits, but they finished about five minutes ahead of us," Mike Romero said of his team's effort. The British Bulldogs III, 47th Royal Artillery Regiment, finished first in the Team Male Military Light category, coming in at 4:14.51.
The British army had hoped to repeat last year's success when they swept several categories, according to Lockey. They managed just one other first place this year, when the Bulldogs IV took the Team Coed Military Light category with a finish time of 5:02.10.
No one unit or individual could claim domination in any of the categories this year. While Great Britain also was the early favorite in the Male Military Light and Male Civilian Light categories, Trent Sinnett of the Indiana National Guard took the former with a finishing time of 3:28.22, just ahead of fellow Indiana Guardsman Curt Carey. Germany's Juergen Klinger paced the civilian male runners, finished first at 2:59.43, a full five minutes ahead of Andrew Parsons of Marblehead, Mass.
The course proved the most challenging to participants in the heavy categories or for those who simply hadn't trained hard enough. By nightfall, the last of the finishers could be seen limping across parking lots toward their hotel rooms, boots slung over their shoulders and deep fatigue etched on their sunburned faces. This newer, shorter version of the infamous death march wasn't really a "walk in the park," after all.