908th 'port dawgs' honor Bataan survivors at annual march

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Tracey Piel
  • 908th Airlift Wing
Just before dawn on March 17, I stood with my friends and fellow "port dawgs" of the 908th Aerial Port Squadron, Staff Sgt. Veronica Natal and Abby Helton, among nearly 6,000 participants waiting on the start of the 24th Annual Bataan Memorial Death March, hosted at White Sands Missile Range New Mexico.

Every year White Sands Missile Range, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Army Morale Welfare & Recreation and countless sponsors and volunteers put on the event to honor the survivors of Bataan. Participants may register for a marathon distance of 26.2 miles in a variety of different divisions to include military or civilian; individual or team; light or heavy.

Also offered is an honorary march of 14.2 miles. Natal and Helton signed up for the honorary march, and I registered for the military light category.

Opening ceremonies included a welcome from White Sands Missile Range Commander, Brig. Gen. Gwen Bingham, followed by a Blackhawk flyover and a rather poignant moment, a symbolic roll call of Bataan survivors. Some answered. Most did not. Then, as ordered, thousands of marchers - military and civilian - snapped to attention as a bugler played TAPS for the survivors who had died during the past year.

In preparing for the march, I read numerous historical accounts of the Battle of Bataan and the subsequent "Death March." Nearly 75,000 American and Filipino soldiers were captured after the surrender of Bataan on April 9, 1942. The POWs were then marched approximately 65 miles with little to no food or water in unrelenting heat to prison camps up the Bataan Peninsula.

They were victims of constant humiliation and torture by their Japanese captors. To step out of formation for a drink of water from a ditch meant almost certain death. To stumble, fall or lag meant a bullet to the head, a bayonet in the back or a beheading. And the bodies were left lying where they fell as examples for others to see.

It is estimated - exact numbers aren't known - that 7,000 to 10,000 men died during the march.

Once the POWs reached the prison camps, the conditions were unimaginable - little food and water and no medicine, but a never-ending supply of filth, disease and death - a heaping amount of hell. Survivor James H. Cowan wrote in his memoir, "At last the Death March was over. But if we had known what lay ahead, most of us would have preferred to have died on the march."

Natal, Helton and I picked up our registration packets and were fortunate enough to meet 93-year-old Oscar L. Leonard, who survived the march and spent three and one-half years as a POW. A human scarecrow at liberation, he still weighed only 85 pounds after a month in the hospital.

A look around during the opening ceremony told a story of surviving not just Bataan, but several wars across multiple generations. The day was to honor the considerable suffering and sacrifice of all veterans, to include a group of Wounded Warriors who led the march along a route dominated by sand, hills and wind.

At mile 22, I had a sort of awakening when I was passed by a one-armed, one-legged Wounded Warrior - shirtless and wearing a kilt. I'm not going to lie. My initial thought, was "Geez, Tracey, dig a little deeper - you were just passed by a guy missing half of his limbs and wearing a skirt." But as quickly as the thought entered my mind, it was replaced with admiration for this soldier and his strength and determination. This guy was a survivor, just like those of Bataan.

Natal claims her favorite part of the march was getting to mile marker 14 with the end in sight and survivors waiting to shake your hand. Personally, I don't know if I have a favorite part. Maybe meeting some of the few remaining veterans of WWII - the greatest generation - a generation nearly lost to us by time.

"The whole event was inspiring. Marching side by side with family members of POW's, all military branches including foreign, some carrying heavy packs, old and young, the volunteers... it all impacted me," Natal said.

Me too.