My experience at the 21st Annual Bataan Memorial Death March

  • Published
  • By Capt. Thomas DeTorres
  • 183rd Medical Group
When my wife wanted to do a full marathon after doing 14 half-marathons she wanted to make it a good one; that's when she discovered the Bataan Memorial Death March.

This marathon memorializes the sacrifice of thousands of Americans and Filipinos in the Battle of Bataan. Undertrained and undersupplied servicemembers, who were responsible for the defense of the islands of Luzon, Corregidor and the harbor defense forts of the Philippines during World War II, had pulled back to the Bataan Peninsula where they fought for three months in 1942 with little air support on ratios from 1-to-2 to 1-to-4 rations.

Seventy-five thousand Americans and Filipinos surrendered and were forced to march over 60 miles through the heat of the jungle to Japanese prison camps. Sources disagree, but it's likely that at least 11,000 died along the way from dehydration, disease or at the hands of their captors.

The Bataan Memorial Death March has been held since 1993 at the White Sands Missile Range in southern New Mexico to honor members that served in Bataan including the 200th Coast Artillery, New Mexico National Guard.

It's a tough 26.2 miles through high desert-terrain, mostly off road, with elevations ranging from 4,100 to 5,300 feet.

Military members can compete in uniform in light or heavy divisions, with heavy division participants carrying at least a 35 pound pack.

I had grudgingly gone along (only after I was asked) on one half-marathon and didn't really plan on ever doing a full one, but when I heard about this race, I just had to do it! How could I not? Veterans of the original campaign that lived through the battle, the march, and in some cases years in the camps come out to each race to see you off and are there to greet you at the finish line.

This year saw an unusually cold start to the race with temperatures in the upper 20s at 4:30 a.m. when breakfast started. We arrived then and stood around shivering, chatting (and chattering) with other participants for over two hours before a massive flag was raised from a fire-engine ladder-truck.

Soon we saluted for reveille, and then the opening ceremonies began. A brief history of the march was given. The Frank Hewlett poem was read: "We're the Battling Bastards of Bataan, No mama, no papa, no Uncle Sam, No aunts, no uncles, no cousins, no nieces, No pills, no planes, no artillery pieces, And nobody gives a damn!" And then the most emotional moment came. The memorial roll call. First, the local survivors, each crying out "Here!" when called, followed by silence from the 5,000+ participants as the names of the survivors that have passed away since the last race are called. This was followed by taps.

Finally the race began with a flyover by a pair of F-22 Raptors from nearby Holloman AFB. A mile or two on pavement and then it's off into the desert. At about six miles we were back on pavement only to begin a six mile climb 1,200 feet up into the mountains.

My wife left in an earlier division, and met up with a student from Texas A&M ROTC. Once I caught up to them we stuck together. In the spirit of Bataan you don't leave anyone behind, so when the ROTC student turned her ankle I taped it for her and we slowed down and kept her going to the next aid station. She stayed there and then we picked up the pace.

Somewhere after mile 20 we had a special surprise. The much rumored "sand pit" was a bit bigger than a pit. It was actually about a mile of loose, deep, sandy gravel, and it was all uphill! By the time we got to the home stretch we were pretty fried, but so elated that we sprinted the last 50 meters!

I had to weigh my pack at the finish to remain qualified and I learned that I had overpacked a bit (not the first time I've done that). It weighed in at 48 pounds which meant it was over 50 when I started with a full load of water.

I gladly unloaded the rice, beans and cat food, and handed them to waiting volunteers from the regional food pantry. Last year they collected 11,000 lbs. of donations.

Then we had another surprise. Bataan veterans were waiting since 7:00 a.m. to greet us and thank us for our service. I don't honestly remember what I told them, but it couldn't have been enough.

Unlike other marathons, only the top finishers get a medal. My wife, Master Sgt. Dotty DeTorres from the Air National Guard Band of the Midwest, finished first in her age category for military females, beating dozens of younger military women and well over 100 civilian women (many in running shoes and Spandex) by hours. When the commanding general of White Sands Missile Range heard that she was the oldest military female to compete this year he also awarded her his coin. When he asked where she was from she proudly answered, "Illinois Air National Guard, Sir!" She added that she was in the band and I think I saw some army tough guys wince.

I don't think I've ever heard the word "brother" used among strangers as much as I did that day, nor have I seen as much cooperation, respect, camaraderie or teamwork. It was a great opportunity to hang with Soldiers and Marines. In fact, every service, every state, and several countries were represented.

If you're looking for a marathon that has meaning, this one's hard to beat. Whether it's your first or your fortieth, it's unique, relevant and challenging.

Almost anyone can do a marathon with enough training and commitment; certainly almost anyone in the U.S. military. The other 99% of the nation that we serve rightfully expects fitness from us. If you can't run one, you can probably walk one. To be honest, I never planned to ever do a full marathon and while I only ran about a mile of it, it's still more miles than I've ever covered on foot at once. If I can do it, anyone can!