“4 a.m. came mighty early this morning for our little group of marchers. I considered myself lucky as I drifted back to sleep, just to be jerked back to early dawn, the neighbors hound dogs barking, and the mighty roar of engines. Planes? Helicopters? I’m not sure but I know they were making their appearance over the mountain at White Sands Missile Range.”
This was part of my journal entry this time last year on the morning of the Bataan Memorial Death March.
Norm and I consider ourselves lucky that we are just over the Organ Mountains from White Sands Missile Range, the Army base a mere 22 miles from Las Cruces, N.M.
Norm is an Army retiree, giving us access to everything the base has to offer. We utilize the gym, PX, and commissary on a regular basis. The base is known for its rocket and missile testing that occurred in the mid 1940’s; and it is also the site for the Bataan Memorial Death March that occurs annually the third weekend of March.
Norm participated in last year’s march with several friends, and this weekend he will tackle mountain and desert terrain to accomplish the feat again.
The Bataan Memorial Death March is a challenging march through the high desert terrain of White Sands Missile Range, conducted in honor of the heroic service members who defended the Philippine Islands during World War II, sacrificing their freedom, health and, in many cases, their very lives.
On April 9, 1942, tens of thousands of American and Filipino soldiers were surrendered to Japanese forces. The Americans were Army, Army Air Corps, Navy and Marines. Among those seized were members of the 200th Coast Artillery and the New Mexico National Guard.
They were marched for days in the scorching heat through the Philippine jungles. Thousands died. Those who survived faced the hardships of a prisoner of war camp. Others were wounded or killed when unmarked enemy ships transporting prisoners of war to Japan were sunk by U.S. air and naval forces.
The Bataan Memorial Death March is not your usual marathon. The 26.2-mile distance is the same but that is where the similarities end. The obvious difference is a change in language; for example, packet pick up is in processing, and racers or participants are marchers. The course is not your typical marathon course either. The marchers experience grueling terrain and weather conditions.
Marchers have the option of participating as a team of five, but have strict rules to abide by. All team members will wear boots and a 35 pound pack; and the team must finish together because leaving a comrade behind is not in the spirit of Bataan or the military service of the United States of America.
Marchers come to this memorial event for many reasons – personal challenge, the spirit of competition or to foster esprit de corps in their unit. Some march in honor of a family member or a particular veteran who was in the Bataan Death March or was taken a prisoner of war by the Japanese in the Philippines.
Since its inception in 1985, the memorial march has grown from about 100 to some 6,500 marchers from across the United States and several foreign countries. While still primarily a military event, many civilians choose to take the challenge.
Last year’s journal entry finished with this statement, “The four in the group defeated the mountain, the desert, and the heat. No speed records were set, but then, none were needed. It is the sense of accomplishment that counts!”
I have a feeling this year’s event will be just as grueling, and just as satisfying to accomplish. After all, it’s not your usual marathon.