Dawn had yet to break, but thousands of people had already gathered at White Sands Missile Range Sunday for the 29th annual Bataan Memorial Death March.
This year’s march saw the largest number of participants — nearly 8,500 — an 18 percent increase over last year. Some wore military uniforms carrying 35-pound rucksacks while others chose colorful red, white and blue tutus. For retired Col. Beverly “Ben” Skardon, he selected an orange shirt — in honor of his alma mater Clemson University — and a white fedora.
At 100 years old, this would be the 11th memorial march in 12 years for Skardon, a Bataan Death March survivor. His participation makes him not only the oldest marcher but the only survivor to ever walk in the event.
“(Participating in the march) means a lot to me personally because that march and the men hang heavy on me. I’ve never forgotten it,” Skardon said. “While I walk, it seems to me, my memory flashes back, and I get emotional.”
It’s nothing compared to the Bataan Death March, the infamous 1942 World War II march, in which 68,000-plus civilians and Filipino and American prisoners of war were cruelly forced to walk at the hands of their Japanese captors through Philippines jungle with little food or water. Some captives were executed; others died from disease and illness — either during the march or while kept as prisoners afterward.
About 1,800 of those forced to walk were New Mexicans who served with the 200th Coastal Artillery and 515th Coast Artillery at Bataan. They were members of the New Mexico National Guard.
Skardon was not a New Mexican, but has become familiar with the Land of Enchantment in recent years through his participation in the memorial march.
He joined the military after graduating from Clemson College in 1938 where he entered as a second lieutenant. During World War II and prior to the death march, Skardon had already received two Silver Stars, three Bronze Stars and a Purple Heart for his commitment in commanding a battalion of Filipino Army recruits.
But on April 9, 1942, Skardon became one of the many POWs forced to march about 70 miles over five days before being shoved in to train carts and shipped to prison camps. They were starved and beaten and many died.
Skardon, too, was close to death. He was severely ill with malaria and beriberi and said he survived thanks only to his fellow Clemson grads Henry Leitner and Otis Morgan, who spoon fed him, carried him to get bathed and cleaned his eyes from infection.
“I do (the march) as a tribute and honor to my Clemson friends. Two and a half years in the prison camp and we became like brothers,” Skardon said. “They are at the foremost of my mind.”
Skardon was released in 1945. He was 27 years old and weighed 90 pounds.
“It’s a whole era out of my life,” Skardon said of his time as a POW. “When I start talking about it I get graphic (images) in front of me.”
Following his return and his recovery, Skardon continued to serve in the military until 1962, when he retired as a colonel.
Skardon joined 8,470 other marchers as he walked — a drove a small portion — through eight miles of the course, but it was not all without preparation.
Skardon said he started training in November outside of his home in Clemson, S.C., where he would walk with his four-wheeled walker up and down the sidewalk. As of Wednesday, he said he was walking about 3 miles a day.
Before bed, Skardon said he would also do about 50 to 60 leg lifts on each leg, as well as some calisthenics, which he said might include him going from a sitting position to a standing one.
“The main thing is to get on that trail and go as far as I can,” Skardon said.
As for how he got started marching in the first place, Ken Scar, communication strategist at Clemson University, said it was just “something he spontaneously decided to do the first time he attended and has done it ever since.”
But never alone.
Rallying behind Skardon on Sunday were 70 members of Ben’s Brigade — a group of friends, family and admirers of Skardon who walk with him.
Hooper Skardon, Skardon’s nephew, has been walking in the brigade for 10 years.
“He’s just a great guy. He’s special,” Hooper said of Skardon. “He’s feisty and he’s a true Southern gentleman.”
Hooper — who is a retired Army sergeant during the Vietnam War — was one of four family members that came to march on Sunday, including Skardon’s granddaughter and two grandsons.
When asked what it means to him to have so many people support his uncle, Hooper simply said, “it means everything.”
Other members of the brigade joined because they were inspired by Skardon’s story.
Joseph T. Cormie said he heard about Skardon when he saw a “60 Minutes” special. From that day on, Cormie said he has dedicated himself to the group, even designing the bright orange Ben’s Brigade T-shirts the group donned.
Cormie, of upstate New York, said he went so far as to paint his beard orange to be part of the experience, adding that it “makes his heart happy” to be honoring veterans by participating in the memorial march.
“I’m inspired by the 100-year-old Ben Skardon. He’s here walking however much he walks and I’m just amazed,” Cormie said. “I’m very, very inspired. Especially by (Skardon’s) story; his story and all the World War II survivors.”
Congressional Gold Medal
On Saturday, Skardon received the Filipino World War II Veterans Congressional Gold Medal — the highest expression of national appreciation for distinguished achievements and contributions that Congress can give — during a presentation at the Post Theater at White Sands Missile Range.
While Skardon said he had mixed feelings about the honor, he said he is “delighted the Filipino soldiers (he) commanded are receiving recognition for their service during that time.”
The opening ceremonies began at 6:35 a.m., at the Bataan Ceremony Field at White Sands Missile Range, on the east side of the Organ Mountains.
“Remember this is more than a marathon. So why are you here? Who are you marching for?” asked Col. Dave Brown, WSMR garrison commander, as he welcomed the crowd. “You being here is important because it helps us remember the past and you are helping us to tell the Army story each and every year.”
The ceremony also recognized the seven Bataan survivors in attendance — Skardon, Harold Bergbower, James Bollich, Valdemar DeHerrera, Paul Ketchum, Oscar Leonard and William Overmeyer.
“Everybody has their own motivation for why their here on this journey here today, but I think its important to remember what this is truly all about and that’s about those survivors and those that aren’t here with us any longer,” said WSMR Brigadier Gen. Eric L. Sanchez, during the opening ceremony.
The ceremony also recognized the 28 Bataan survivors who have died since the last march, including Julio Barela, a Doña Ana farmer who died on Feb. 12 at the age of 101.
The participants were corralled in sections before the race started about 7 a.m. Led by military wounded veterans, thousands poured on to the blocked off roads of WSMR before heading into the desert terrain. Marathoners also had the opportunity, at the start of the race, to shake the hands of the Bataan survivors who attended.
“So when things are getting tough out there on the course, you want to give cause you’ve got blisters or whatever is going on. Think about what these gentlemen sitting here today went through,” Sanchez said, as a nod to the survivors as well as those who lost their lives. “When you’re done you’ll have some blisters you’ll have to deal with but not anything near what they had to deal with.
“Hopefully that gives you the motivation to continue today,” Sanchez said.
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