The march is held every year as a living memorial to the American and Philippine Soldiers who were forced to endure the Bataan Death March at the hands of Japanese soldiers in the Philippines during World War II.
This is the second year the 707th MI Forward Watch Battalion has participated in the memorial march. The battalion uses the trip as a mentorship opportunity to strengthen the bonds between junior soldiers and their mid-level and senior leaders. Camping together along the long drive from Fort Gordon to White Sands gave the Forward Watch soldiers lots of time to interact and learn from each other.
One of the most anticipated parts of the Bataan Memorial Death March is the opportunity for participants to meet with and hear the experiences of some of the last remaining survivors of the Bataan Death March.
The 707th MI Battalion Soldiers were able to hear from 96-year-old Bataan POW Col. Ben Skardon. He shared some of the details of the march, his captivity in Japanese POW camps and his experiences in the “hell ships” that were twice bombed by unknowing American forces as the Japanese attempted to move the Bataan survivors to Japan.
“I was looking forward to meeting the Bataan veterans,” said Spc. Shaul Funt, a linguist and transcriber for the 707th MI Battalion. “The combination of meeting the veterans and watching the documentary about Bataan opened my eyes. After hearing their stories I knew that I was going to be able to complete the march. I told myself the morning the march started that the minute I have a hard time, I am going to think about the stories of the survivors. If I didn’t finish, I wouldn’t just disappoint myself, my teammates or my unit. I would disappoint those veterans. Failure wasn’t an option.”
During his talk, Skardon gave his motto of three words, “survival, loyalty and faith” to the audience to take with them to strengthen and remind them of why they were taking part in the memorial march the next day.
“At about mile 22 I started thinking about what Mr. Skardon said,” said Sgt. Eric C. Walker, a linguist for the 707th MI Battalion. “It was right after the sand pit. I had to sit down because it was so energy sapping. Then it clicked in my head. These guys marched three times this distance on barely any food or water. They were shot if they stepped out of ranks and here I am sitting here griping about a couple of blisters on my feet. It definitely helped me motivate myself to get up and cross the finish line.”
On the day of the march, all of the Forward Watch soldiers chose to do the full 26.2 mile course. They also all managed to finish the course, which is known as one of the hardest marathons in the world. The battalion’s five-man military heavy team (each carrying a 35-plus pound rucksack on the course) beat last year’s heavy team completion time.
They also came in eight place out of the 26 teams who managed to finish the course and not get disqualified due to injuries or not having the required 35-plus pounds of weight at the end.
All of the Forward Watch soldiers expressed how the experience of participating in the Bataan Memorial Death March made a positive impact on them. Some of them said it reconnected them to the reasons why they decided to join the Army in the first place. Others said they would use the fact that they completed such a hard challenge to get them through difficulties they will face in the future.
They also agreed that meeting some of the last remaining survivors of the Bataan Death March was an amazing experience that would leave a lasting impression on all of them.
“Everyone at some point reached that point where they were willing to quit,” said Cpt. Jamen K. Miller, commander, HHC 707th MI Battalion.
“Mentally or physically, something clicks and you think ‘I don’t know if I want to do this anymore.’ It creeps in your mind that those who came before and really did Bataan didn’t have the option of quitting.
“The best part of the event was doing it as a team; whether it was the heavy team or the light team, or all of us as part of the Forward Watch team. If one guy was struggling, then the others were there to pick him up and move him forward. I think that is the true meaning of Bataan. Not to get from one point to the other, but to ensure that you and your comrades make it from the beginning to the end; just as the survivors of Bataan had to do.
“They didn’t make it to the end of their march on their own. They had different people helping them, pushing them, pulling them, ensuring they survived and got to the end. I think that’s what this memorial march is all about,” he said.