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Bataan Memorial Marchers Endure Grueling Reflection on Service, Sacrifice

Marine Corps Cpl. Christopher Sanders' face showed no sign of the torment each step brought as he carried his heavy pack bearing a photograph of his late father up the steep dirt trail scarring the New Mexico high desert.

A service member in uniform walks with a rucksack.
Bataan Memorial Death March
Marine Corps Cpl. Christopher Sanders marches in the Bataan Memorial Death March at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico, March 16, 2024. Sanders, a New Mexico native, marched in honor of his father, Army Sgt. Christopher Sanders, who died while serving in Iraq in 2008.
Photo By: Joseph Clark, DOD
VIRIN: 240316-D-WM747-1006

Despite the blisters on his feet that formed long before, he maintained a steady, determined pace as he pushed past the halfway point of the 26.2-mile trek through White Sands Missile Range this month honoring the veterans who endured the Bataan Death March during World War II.

"At mile 8, my feet started getting rubbed raw," Sanders said as he heaved his 35-pound rucksack up a seemingly endless incline. "It's been a constant problem I've had my entire career when I hike." 

The moleskin he used to prep his feet before the march was no match against the punishing loose gravel and the sweat that quickly lined his boots. He said he stopped briefly at the 11-mile mark to wrap his feet, but quitting the march was not an option.  

"Got to keep on pushing," he said.

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For 35 years both civilians and service members have endured the annual rite of passage to honor the sacrifices of the U.S. and Filipino service members who were captured by the Japanese and forced to march some 65 miles through the jungle to Camp O'Donnell, a former Philippine army training center where the prisoners were interned. 

Among the captives were 1,816 soldiers from the New Mexico National Guard, only 829 of whom returned.  

ROTC cadets from New Mexico State University first held the Bataan Memorial Death March in 1989. The New Mexico National Guard began sponsoring the event in 1992 and the event was moved to the Army's sprawling missile range.

Year after year the grueling march has served as a physical reminder of the sacrifices made by the defenders of the Bataan Peninsula in the Philippines.  

Of the approximately 75,000 U.S. and Filipino service members who began the 10-day forced march, only a fraction reached the camp.  

Thousands later perished at Camp O'Donnell, where they suffered regular mistreatment, beatings and torture by their Japanese captors.  

Their legacy has persisted through the annual New Mexico trek, which features both civilian and military categories and "light" and "heavy" divisions.  

Teams from military and ROTC units throughout the country and across the services compete each year, often training together at their home stations in the lead-up to the march. 

Those marching in the heavy division carry at least a 35-pound pack in addition to any gear they choose to carry to complete the hike. 

Photographs of those who endured the infamous march in April 1942 line the route, serving as an inspiration for participants as they negotiate their own immediate struggles.

Through the years, the march has grown to signify the sacrifices of all of those who have gone before. Many marchers attach to their packs mementos honoring veterans who have passed in the decades following World War II.

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Sanders, a New Mexico native now stationed at Camp Pendleton, California, affixed to his pack a white T-shirt bearing a photograph of his father, an Army veteran who died while serving in Iraq in 2008.  

His family has completed the march regularly throughout the years as a way to honor the elder Sanders. 

"We do this to commemorate him," he said. "It's a tradition." 

This year, Sanders marched for the first time as an active-duty Marine.

"I have a lot more practice than I did when I was a kid," he said. "I've rucked a lot and I've hiked a lot now. It feels good to finally represent." 

He was joined by his mother and grandmother who hiked in the civilian division. His 86-year-old great-grandmother also marched in the 14.2-mile "honorary" march that covers the same grueling terrain.  

Katherine Schneider, a marcher in the civilian heavy division, affixed to her pack a placard commemorating her recently passed grandfather who served in World War II. 

"He never talked about it," she said. "But in his will, he wanted full military honors for something he could never talk about. He wanted to be known."

A woman walks on a long road.
Bataan Memorial Death March
Katherine Schneider marches in the Bataan Memorial Death March at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico, March 16, 2024. Schneider completed the march to commemorate her grandfather who served in World War II.
Photo By: Joseph Clark, DOD
VIRIN: 240316-D-WM747-1013
A woman grasps a pack on her back while walking.
Bataan Memorial Death March
Katherine Schneider marches in the Bataan Memorial Death March at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico, March 16, 2024. Schneider completed the march to commemorate her grandfather who served in World War II.
Photo By: Joseph Clark, DOD
VIRIN: 240316-D-WM747-1012
Schneider said the march was a fitting tribute to him, noting that he walked 3 miles every day until he was 93 years old.  

This year was Schneider's first to hike in the Bataan memorial event. She said the idea to complete the march came after she and her friends began planning a 22-mile ruck for Memorial Day to raise money for a local veteran family in her home state of Virginia.

"They said if we're going to walk 22 miles, let's do 26 in New Mexico. Next time I need to ask them more questions," she joked as she marched along a stretch of highway late in the course.  

Her chipper demeanor belied the miles of grueling trails she had already completed. But it would come in handy for what remained ahead.  

There are no true breaks and no instant gratifications along the route, only deceiving changes in terrain that quickly reveal new challenges for the hikers to endure.  

The sprawling, high-desert course seems to be designed to exact a toll from even the most athletic participants. 

A stretch of asphalt that seems to offer a reprieve from the previous miles of loose footing on dirt and sand trails quickly reveals itself to be an uphill trudge that punishes even the most conditioned. 

Just when hikers think the hard part is over, the course changes the stakes with another series of rolling hills or miles of loose sand that further tax their already spent legs.  

Marchers manage the discomfort in their own unique ways. Some immerse themselves in uplifting playlists that echo from Bluetooth speakers attached to their packs. Some engage in lighthearted commiseration with fellow hikers at the water stops along the way.  

Few, if any, let their own struggles along the way distract them from why they are there.  

"We have a choice being here," said Stephen Henry, a civilian marcher from Oklahoma who completed the march with Oklahoma Army National Guard 2nd Lt. Eddie Anguiano.

A service member in uniform adjusts straps on a large pack.
Bataan Memorial Death March
Oklahoma Army National Guard 2nd Lt. Eddie Anguiano adjusts his pack while marching in the Bataan Memorial Death March at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico, March 16, 2024.
Photo By: Joseph Clark, DOD
VIRIN: 240316-D-WM747-1011

People walk next to a sign displaying a photograph of a World War II veteran.
Bataan Memorial Death March
Oklahoma Army National Guard 2nd Lt. Eddie Anguiano, right, and fellow marcher, Stephen Henry, left, pass a sign commemorating a World War II veteran during the Bataan Memorial Death March at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico, March 16, 2024.
Photo By: Joseph Clark, DOD
VIRIN: 240316-D-WM747-1015

Henry noted the luxuries his fellow marchers enjoy — the bantering companionship, the water stops along the way. The discomfort during this march, he said, pales in comparison to what their predecessors endured.  

"It really just shows, puts in your mind, what they had to go through back in World War II," he said. 

For the marchers, the struggles along the way offer a very real and personal reflection on those sacrifices.  

Army Command Sgt. Maj. Joshua Brown, who completed the march with fellow soldiers from the U.S. Army Special Warfare Center and School at Fort Liberty, North Carolina, said that reflection year after year is crucial for keeping their legacy alive. 

"It's no different than honoring Gold Star families," he said. "You have to be out here," he said. "You've got to let people know that you still remember the sacrifice people made in the past.

"If we forget our history then we forget where we're going forward in life," he added.

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