With honor

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Michael Means
  • 49th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
I woke up, it was early, and the sun was nowhere to be found on the morning of March 21. I had to get ready to meet up with my teammates before we left on a long drive from Holloman Air Force Base to White Sands Missile Range.

My teammates and I were on our way to compete in what many call the toughest marathon in the United States -- the Bataan Memorial Death March.

We had registered for the race as a team, and from the moment we made our on-the-spot decision to sign up while in the comfort of our cubicles at work, to the remarkable moment of crossing the finish line, we were a team.

The weeks of training together in the New Mexico sun would prepare us and bring us together as friends and teammates.

The Bataan Memorial Death March is not your typical race. The race's full marathon-length course has a seemingly never-ending hill sandwiched between miles 8 and 13 and a hike through the notorious "Sand Pit" from miles 20 to 22.

In spite of of its renowned difficulty, more than 5,700 military and civilian participants from all 50 states, and at least five counties, came to tough out the sand, hills and scorching New Mexico sun. The marchers throughout the contest wore either a 35-pound pack in the heavy category, or a water container in the light division.

More than two dozen Wounded Warriors and amputees from the Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam conflicts participated. It was their courage and devotion that inspired and encouraged us to complete this marathon.

The crowd of over 5,700 fell silent as the names of the Bataan Death March veterans including the ones who have passed on this last year were read, followed by a somber playing of "Taps" and a loud cannon burst that marked the beginning of the memorial march.

The marathon is one-of-a kind--known for more than its miseries. It honors the 75,000 Filipino and Americans who endured or gave their lives in the original Bataan Death March in 1942. Our team participated in order to feel a small portion of their pain, to force ourselves past our normal bodily limits by looking for more strength than our own and mainly to make certain that both the survivors and those who never returned are not forgotten.

The peninsula of Bataan was a strategic location for the security of the Philippines against the invasion by the Japanese in World War II. During the battle for Bataan, Allied troops were outnumbered three to one. With insufficient supplies and a small expectation of reinforcements the order to surrender was made by Maj. Gen. Edward P. King. They incorrectly assumed that the rules of the Geneva Convention would be upheld. Instead, the troops were "evacuated" by way of a dismal march to Camp O'Donnell 60 miles away, given little to no food or water and subjected to various brutalities. Those who fell behind were shot, beheaded or bayoneted, according to event speakers.

Of the 75,000 to start the march, there were only 56,000 who survived and encountered the merciless conditions at Camp O'Donnell. They were starved, beaten, made to work under intolerable conditions and killed at will.

Survivors attending the march shared their stories, shook the hands of each racer who crossed the starting line and were honored at pre- and post-race ceremonies.

Though our condition during the race was not nearly as desperate as that of the Bataan veterans, we saw the same bold fortitude at work in our challenge.

As I crossed the finish line I thanked one of the Bataan Death March veterans for his service to our country. As we shook hands he pulled me closer and said "I've been waiting here all day to shake your hand. Thank you for coming out and thank you for your service."

He sat there all day determined to shake everyone's hand. That moment, one I will never forget, embodied the reason why we participated in the Bataan Memorial Death March. We should never take for granted what these men did and should honor them for what they endured on that Philippine peninsula while protecting our freedom.