VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. --
During 1942, on the day after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, the Japanese started invading the Philippines. The U.S. sent troops to defend Manila (the Philippine capital), and its island of Luzon. After months of fighting and being overwhelmed by starvation and disease, U.S. General, Edward King Jr. and his troops, surrendered to Japan. Approximately 75,000 Filipino and American troops were rounded up into POW camps and marched 65 miles to the other side of the Bataan Peninsula. Thousands of troops died due to their weakened conditions and the brutality of their captors – history would remember this event as the Bataan Death March.
Today, the Bataan Memorial Death March is held at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico, to commemorate the Bataan Death March of 1942. This year marks the 75th anniversary of the Bataan Death March, with 7,200 military and civilian personnel participating from all services, to include Allied Nations military personnel. The goal was to march 26.2 miles though New Mexico high desert terrain and finish before 8 p.m. Our team of five was mostly made up of Air Force members, with the exception of one Army lieutenant, who had family from both the American and Filipino forces at Bataan. For the lieutenant, it was more than just a memorial, he was honoring a family legacy.
The march took place on March 19, 2017. Our day began in the dark, crisp morning as we slowly inched our way to the main gate of White Sands Missile Range. Taillights stretched for miles in front of us leading to where we would begin the long arduous journey in which we had prepared for the past few months. We made it through the gate with ease and parked close to the start. Everyone grabbed their packs and made last minute adjustments before making our way to what many called the corrals. The corrals were basically a football field sectioned off for each group of marchers. Our team of five had registered under the military team; light division.
Before the march began, we met an Army Veteran who was standing alone, but looked very content. We broke the ice by asking him if he would take a group picture of us and he graciously accepted. After getting talking with him a bit, we found out he had been awarded multiple Purple Hearts for surviving several near-death experiences during his tours in the Middle East.
This year was the hottest march to date as temperatures rose into the upper 80s. It scarcely compared to the more than 100 degree weather, the survivors suffered. There were aid stations approximately every two miles that provided oranges and bananas, as well as some much needed water and Gatorade. After the highpoint, approximately halfway, they were serving burgers too. Although there were many aid stations, many suffered from heat exhaustion. There were medical personnel at each aid station, and cots for people to rest on, but not much shade. A two mile stretch known as the “Sand Pit” proved to be the toughest part of the day and it didn’t help that it was during the hottest part of the day. We all made it to the finish. We were exhausted, but humbled, by the original marchers who endured so much more.
After the 26.2 mile trek, we quickly realized that our vehicle was approximately 26 miles away at the starting line. We were already worn out, and not looking forward to the walk ahead of us. After taking a deep breath, we summoned up the nerve to start the walk back. On the way back to the car, a van stopped in the middle of an intersection blocked all traffic, and someone yelled for us to jump in, we all looked at each other as if it were a miracle and quickly climbed aboard. As we navigated for the driver, she told us about her father, who was sitting in the front passenger seat. She explained that he was a survivor of Bataan, but didn’t participate in the original Death March. As a member of the U.S. Army Air Corps, he had escaped the POW camps and joined the ranks of the Filipino Army, and fought Japanese forces while on horseback. After surviving Bataan, he transferred with the Army Air Corps into the newly formed U.S. Air Force. He eventually promoted to Chief Master Sergeant along with 620 others when the rank was created in 1959. We were humbled to meet a person with so much history, especially the history that most of us have learned and followed for our entire career. They dropped us off, and we thanked them for their support and the chief for his service.
We began this journey as a team competing in a march, but left as individuals each humbled by the people we met, and the history we learned. We had come to realize this march not only commemorates the original marchers, but serves to remind us of the tenacity of those who serve and have served in the defense of our nation, as well as nations around the world. From now on, we will know this event as “The Humbling March.”