30th Bataan Memorial Death March draws record crowd to White Sands Missile Range
By ALGERNON D'AMMASSA | Las Cruces Sun-News | Published: March 18, 2019
WHITE SANDS MISSILE RANGE, N.M. (Tribune News Service) — The 30th annual Bataan Memorial Death March drew its largest field of participants yet on Sunday, with 8,631 registered to run or march through the desert surrounding White Sands Missile Range.
Participants could register for the full 26.2-mile trek from the main post through sandy terrain on an uphill circuit around Mineral Hill north of US 70, including an area known aptly as the "sand pit." Or, there was a 14.2-mile honorary march that broke from the longer route after the eighth mile and returned to post, but still through desert terrain.
The memorial march was founded in 1989 by ROTC cadets at New Mexico State University.
Since 1992, the U.S. Army installation located east of Las Cruces has been host to the event in remembrance of the American and Filipino soldiers of World War II who were forced by the Imperial Japanese Army to march 65 miles through jungle terrain enduring torture. Thousands died from rough conditions, mistreatment or execution, while others died in prisoner camps. Still others were killed while being transported on unmarked ships that were attacked by U.S. forces.
Sunday morning was crisp and cool — following a snowy Saturday — as thousands gathered on the main post for the opening ceremony, which was delayed evidently to allow time for the long line of motorists at the Las Cruces gate to park and assemble. Early arrivals lined up for breakfast burritos and coffee at food trucks close by.
The ceremony began around 6:30 a.m. with the Filipino and U.S. national anthems and a welcome speech by U.S. Rep. Xochitl Torres Small, D-N.M., who said, "What the soldiers of the Bataan endured must never be forgotten, and what you are doing today helps keep those memories and that spirit alive."
Sitting near the stage, wrapped in blankets to keep warm before sunrise, were four survivors of the Battle of Bataan and the death march: Harold Bergbower, 98; James Bollich, 97; Valdemar DeHerrera, 99, hailing from Alamogordo; Paul Kerchum, 99; and Ben Skardon, 101.
Skardon walked more than 3 miles of the course this year, said Cheryl Fallstead, a Las Cruces resident who helps to host him each year.
There were registered participants from all 50 states and a dozen countries, and more than 1,500 volunteers to assist them.
Civilians and servicemen took part, in running and hiking gear or military uniform, with a few costumed in green for St. Patrick's Day. Many also carried flags and/or placards honoring fallen soldiers.
Linda Chambers, 68, a nurse living outside Noblesville, Indiana, wore a rolled U.S. flag and a sign in tribute to Father Thomas Scecina, a parish priest serving as a military chaplain when his unmarked transport ship was torpedoed.
Traveling with her husband, Chambers said the pair frequently travel and run marathons carrying flags which they later donate. The flag she carried Sunday would be sent to Scecina's parish.
This was Chambers' second Bataan run, and she said the weather this year was far more favorable than when she ran in 2017 on a day that was "miserable hot."
“Compared to what the military and the law enforcement do for us, this is really no big deal at all," she said before finishing her water break at mile 8 of her marathon trek.
Further up the climb toward Mineral Hill, around which the march proceeded counter-clockwise, a group of ROTC cadets from California took a moment to remove their backpacks and re-hydrate.
Marchers registering in the "heavy" category carried a minimum of 35 pounds on their backs, many bearing canned foods to be donated to the Casa de Peregrinos food bank after they crossed the finish line.
Between a pack stuffed with clothing and equipment, and a hydration pack filled with water, Caesar Enriquez said his burden exceeded 50 pounds.
It was third trip to White Sands for the march, and he said, "As long as I can move I'll probably be coming here every year." He said he wasn't sure why, but "it just motivates me to see all these people out here."
Each year, the civil engineering major has brought a contingent of fellow ROTC cadets from California State Polytechnic University in Pomona with him. This year, his party numbered 18.
Asked how he prepared newcomers for the march, Enriquez said it comes down to going on long "ruck marches" with heavy packs, and breaking in a good pair of boots.
Throughout the route, medical stations were arranged with ample supplies of water, Gatorade and fruit for the participants, and cots for them to rest and treat blisters or other injuries. Ambulances waited nearby in case anyone needed to be evacuated.
Volunteers in red and blue shirts also provided moral support, clapping and cheering the participants on and holding out tubes of sunscreen, ready to squirt generous doses into outstretched hands. At one station, a volunteer in a floppy sun hat repeatedly called out: "The sun here is not your friend!"
The advice participants received during the opening ceremony had been: "When it gets tough, keep marching," and so they did until they reached a canopied finish line just outside the base's Frontier Club, where meals, cold beverages, and even free massages awaited them.
Many simply took the opportunity to lay down in a shaded area under a large gazebo, tending to their feet before enjoying their lunch on the grounds behind the Frontier Club, many strolling or reclining for a view of the snow-capped Organ Mountains.
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