As dawn breaks across the desert, Ben Skardon, 89, reaches out to shake hands with some of the 4,000 participants who file past him during the start of the 18th annual Bataan Memorial Death March at the White Sands Missile Range near Las Cruces, N.M.
The marathonone route is 26.2 miles and another is 15.2 milespays tribute to thousands of surrendered American and Filipino servicemen who were forced by the Japanese army during World War II to march 70 miles through the Philippine jungle to a prison camp. Skardon, a survivor of the 1942 ordeal, offers words of encouragement to those whove shown up to honor him and the soldiers who didnt survive.
Thank you most kindly.
God bless you.
God go with you.
Participants, in return, grip his hand respectfully, sometimes tearfully, thanking him for his sacrifice for his country. Despite his brave smile, Skardon is close to tears.
It chokes me up pretty good, says Skardon, of Clemson, S.C. (pop. 11,939), who musters up the energy to walk seven miles during the marathon.
In all, 20 Bataan survivors attend last years event, which drew runners from every U.S. state and several countries. Started in 1989 by the Army ROTC at New Mexico State University, the memorial march hits close to home. Of the 1,800 New Mexico soldiers, members of the 200th Coast Artillery of the National Guard, sent to the Philippine Islands during World War II, only half survived the infamous march and the ensuing imprisonment.
Today, the U.S. military-sponsored event attracts participants from marathon runners in sports attire to soldiers in battle fatigues. Some take the ultimate challenge and enter the heavy category, wearing a full uniform and 35 pounds of gear on the mountainous route, which reaches elevations of 4,000 to 5,300 feet.
Volunteer Don Buck, 81, a World War II veteran, has lent a hand for years, coordinating a water station seven miles into the event. You have to remember what these guys went through, Buck says. This is a way of paying back.
Getting more than 300 volunteers to help each year isnt a problem, he says, because once theyve been involved, they always come back. If Im not pushing up daisies, Ill be there next March, he says.
The day prior to the event, participants gather inspiration from Bataan survivors, who speak about the fortitude and faith that helped them endure their 1942 march. Last year, Skardon urged his audience to keep three words in mind as they set out on their memorial march: Survival, loyalty, faith.
Nine-year Army veteran Kevin Pannell took those words to heart and marched on two prosthetic legs. The guys that walked the real Bataan put up with a lot more junk than Ill ever have to, he says. So if they can do it, we can come out here and show support for them.
For Hospital Corpsman First Class Mark Rogers, 52, the event is a great way to honor all U.S. soldiers of the past. I decided to do the memorial march because it is an exciting tribute to those of my dads generation, says Rogers, of Albuquerque, N.M.
No matter what the reason, participants often find that the Bataan Memorial Death March is a life-changing event. Many people come expecting a sporting event and leave with a renewed sense of pride and patriotism, says Monte Marlin, a spokeswoman for the White Sands Missile Range. (The marathon) tests their individual mettle, it tests their patriotism. And afterwards, you leave a better person.