By Airman 1st Class Colin Cates
49th Wing Public Affairs
HOLLOMAN AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. (AFNS) — As the sun rose above the New Mexican desert, thousands of people from the United States and countries around the world gathered to begin the 24th Annual Bataan Memorial Death March at White Sands Missile Range, N.M., March 17.
The Bataan Memorial Death March honors the 80,000 Filipino and American troops who surrendered after the three-month Battle of Bataan on April 9, 1942, in which they fought to defend the islands of Luzon, Corregidor, and the harbor defense forts of the Philippines.
After surrendering, they were forced to march 80 miles through the Philippine jungle, where more than 5,000 prisoners of war died before they could reach the capital of Bataan.
Thirteen survivors attended this year’s march and welcomed 5,800 people who came to show respect and honor to the very men before them and those that were there on that historical day more than 70 years ago.
“I feel very inspired and honored that these veterans come here and also to see them on the course greeting participants,” said U.S. Army Col. Leo G. Pullar, White Sands Missile Range garrison commander. “An event like the Bataan Memorial Death March brings everyone together. It shows the love and support everyone has for our veterans and military. It gives you the chills and brings you to tears at the same time.”
The remaining Bataan survivors are in their 90s, and the ones that are able to make it to the event get to share in the moment of being honored by so many and also share their wisdom.
“I feel humbled to see all the work that people put into making this event possible to honor us,” said Oscar Leonard, a former U.S. Army intelligence analyst and Bataan survivor with the 28th Bomb Squadron. “I always look forward to coming to the Bataan and seeing fellow survivors, it gives us all the opportunity to enjoy each other’s company along with sharing in the moment of what this event means to all of us.”
Held annually since 1990, the memorial march offers two different courses — a 26.2-mile trek and a 15-mile course. Both courses cover a multitude of difficult desert elements such as sand, rock and high-desert winds, which is why this marathon is known as one of the most difficult courses in the world. This year, more than 1,200 volunteers distributed many gallons of water and Gatorade, as well as provided medical support and security to participants.
Many of the participants of the memorial march came to the event with one mindset and left with a different appreciation and respect for all our brothers and sisters in arms.
“It was amazing to be able to do this event,” said Tech. Sgt. Tenaya (last name withheld due to operations security constraints,) 29th Attack Squadron sensor operator instructor. “I wanted to do the event as a personal challenge, but was really surprised by the emotion of it. Seeing everyone gathered to honor these brave veterans and wounded warriors, you really start to feel like you’re part of something bigger than yourself.”