The 75th anniversary of the Bataan Death March drew a record field of 7,200 retired and active-duty military personnel and civilians to the hot sands of New Mexico to honor victims of one of World War II’s worst atrocities.
The 26.2 mile-Bataan Memorial Death March course, where participants gathered Sunday, ran through the hilly desert terrain of the state’s White Sands Missile Range. The 28th such event, it honored the 10,000 American and 58,000 Filipino service members who defended the Philippines and were forced by the Japanese military to walk more than 65 miles through the hot jungle of the Bataan Peninsula without food or water. Marchers also had the option to walk a 14.2 mile cours
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“We all wanted to march for the simple purpose of being part of something larger than ourselves and to honor those who survived and gave their lives on our behalf,” says Carolina Johnson, the captain of the five-member women’s Army team representing Ft. Bragg, North Carolina.
Johnson, a first-time participant, and her teammates (Dawn Page, Katie Collins, Osipa Jumamudunova Woolford and Amie Foster) were part of the women’s “heavy” division, which means they marched the course carrying at least 35 pounds on their backs.
The military and civilian men and women who entered the heavy division used non-perishable items, including cans of beans, bags of rice or other items to make the weight, all of which was then donated to the Roadrunner Food Bank in Albuquerque, New Mexico. In 2016, 21,000 pounds was given to the food bank, according to race organizers.
“We remembered their heroism and drew strength from them in taking each step forward,” she adds. “We all pulled together as one when one was falling down.”
The march carries as much meaning to longtime attendees.
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“As a veteran who served 26 years in the U.S. Army and deployed three times to combat and experienced the horrors of war, I feel pain for the men and women who suffered intensely under the deadly Japanese Imperial Forces, as they were marched through the Philippine jungle. This is what drives me to run in their honor,” says Ed Broadnax of El Paso, Texas.
Broadnax, who hosts runners at his home every year, tells Fox News the decision to run in full Army gear is an easy one.
“Uniform, Boots and 45-pound backpack. That is the only way I know how to do the Bataan Memorial Death March. Every year I’m blessed to be alive, so every year I will run/walk 26.2 miles for the Forgot Soldiers of Bataan” he adds.
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The course, including a nearly-one mile stretch in ankle-deep sand known as “the sand pit,” was humbling for military and civilian, veteran marathoners and first-timers alike. But, nothing was more humbling than being in the presence of the eight Bataan survivors.
Prisoner of war survivor Ben Skardon was attending his 10th march and was the only survivor to walk any distance on Sunday. Joined by friends and supporters, known as “Ben’s Brigade,” the retired colonel, who turns 100 in July, walked 8.5 miles of the course.
While unable to walk, Bataan survivor Richard Trask was no less determined to be on hand, as he has for decades. Trask, who lives in a veterans' home in Amarillo, Texas, told Fox News that despite the fact it is challenging to physically participate in the event, he would not miss it.
“Being here is just fabulous. Being surrounded by the mountains and seeing everyone here is beautiful and means so much,” says the 97-year old.
His son, Richard Trask III, says his father did not begin opening up about his experience in the Philippines until he started attending the march.
After surviving the death march, Trask was transported to the infamous Japanese “Hell ships,” where he was forced into slave labor cutting steel.
Despite the torture he endured, Trask harbors no hatred for his captors, which his son says may be what has kept him going well into his 90s.
Trask is one of less than 50 survivors still alive – a somber note that was struck during the ceremony when the names of the 26 Bataan survivors who died since the last march were read.
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For many, it made the opportunity to shake the hands of the eight survivors in attendance at the start and finishing lines even more emotional.
U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., was among a crowd of attendees at the ceremony, which began in the chilly shadows of the Organ Mountains with the singing of the American anthem and, for the first time in the memorial march’s history, the Philippine National Anthem, “Lupang Hinirang.”
The march is the nation’s largest gathering to commemorate a Philippine historical event, according to Jim Diego, who sang the Filipino national anthem.
More than 1,200 volunteers handed out approximately 120 cases of oranges, 12,000 cups and 15 cases of bananas and served more than 750 pounds of pasta and 150 gallons of marinara sauce.
For Bill Moeller, a 61-year old Army veteran, he will come back in future years to ensure the Bataan families and the families of those who serve are paid the appropriate honor.
“It is the least I can do to pay respect for the service members who went before me,” says the West Point graduate and longtime participant.
As challenging as the experience was to the body, the spirit of the race makes the question of whether to come back next year easy for some.
Without hesitation, Carolina Johnson and her teammates replied, “Yes.”