The Long Walk: Bliss troops join record-setting 6,000 participants during 22nd Annual Bataan Memorial Death March

A Fort Bragg Soldier leads the way for his team during the 22nd annual Bataan Memorial Death March in southern New Mexico March 27. Photo by David Poe, Monitor Staff.

David Poe,
Monitor Staff:

Almost 69 years ago, approximately 78,000 World War II allied troops (12,000 Americans and 66,000 Filipinos) who’d surrendered to the Japanese at the Battle of Bataan were forcibly marched across the Filipino jungles in an axis prisoner of war transfer.

The men, already weakened by hunger and disease, suffered unspeakably during the 60-mile march and according to first-hand accounts were tortured by Japanese guards every step of the way. Approximately 11,000 prisoners never made it to Camp O’Donnell, which was under Japanese occupation. Instead they were left along the route, cast aside without dignity to die quietly and alone. Their spirits, along with many original march survivors which were in attendance, were far from alone or quiet and were the definition of dignity when more than 6,000 participants, along with thousands more volunteers and supporters gathered for the 22nd annual Bataan Memorial Death March at White Sands Missile Range, N.M., Sunday.

The number of entrants set a record for the yearly event which started in 1989 as the work of New Mexico State University Army ROTC personnel who wanted to pay homage to the veterans of the march, including those of the New Mexico National Guard’s own 200th Coast Artillery unit.

University of Texas at El Paso ROTC cadets let other schools competing know whose house they’re in during the 22nd annual Bataan Memorial Death March in southern New Mexico Sunday. Photo by David Poe, Monitor Staff.

Three years after its inception, the Army’s White Sands Missile Range and the New Mexico National Guard joined NMSU ROTC in sponsorship of the event, and it was moved to the range area. There the course was split into two routes, one a 15.2-mile “short” course, and the other a standard marathon length of 26.2 miles. Starting at an elevation of 1,325 feet, climbs extended as high as 1,650 feet and is a respected physical endurance event the world over.

Two all-Soldier teams and one which included an Army spouse, all from 532nd Signal Company, 501st Brigade Support Battalion, 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division, were one of the many units which competed together for the event. Spc. Gabrielle Zamora, a 532nd Signal Co. Soldier said having her fellow troops with her on the course made all the difference.

“I enjoy being challenged,” she said after her first Bataan memorial march. “My motivation came partially from myself, but mostly from my team.”

Pvt. Charles Sneed, also of the 532nd Signal Co. said though he remembered reading about the actual World War II event, sweating and bleeding in acknowledgment of it made it a lot more real.

“I knew a good bit of information prior to the march from a U.S. History class that I had in high school,” he said. “Rucking this march really gave me a greater understanding and appreciation for what those guys went through.”

Today, some of America’s harshest World War II enemies have become some of its staunchest allies. Some things may have changed, but others have stayed the same. The universal sacrifice of the American servicemember, whether it came at the end of a Japanese bayonet more than 60 years ago, or through sore ankles on March 27, are never forgotten by brothers and sisters in arms.

One of three teams of Soldiers from 532nd Signal Company, 501st BSB, 1st SBCT, 1st Armored Div. take part in the 22nd annual Bataan Memorial Death March in southern New Mexico Sunday. Photo by David Poe, Monitor Staff.

“I don’t believe that doing this can even scratch the surface of the pain and suffering [World War II] prisoners endured during the actual march,” said Staff Sgt. John McBride, a Soldier from the 532nd Signal Co. “To be forced to march 60 plus miles with no food and water is amazing to think about it. I think doing this [event] gives people a sense of the pain they endured, but nothing can compare to what those brave Soldiers went through.”

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