This past weekend, March 27, was the Bataan Memorial Death March at White Sands Missile Range near Las Cruces, New Mexico. The march is a 26-mile marathon and a 15-mile modified hike. This year more than 6,300 people came to honor the veterans who were captured by the Japanese in the Philippines, marched 80 miles north to a prison camp, and later placed in unmarked ships for transport as slave labor in Japan. Their stories are both horrific and heroic; more than half never came home.
We know of the feelings of these men from a poem Frank Hewlett wrote:
We are the battling bastards of Bataan;
No mamas. No papas. No Uncle Sam;
No aunts, no uncles, no cousins, no nieces;
No pills, no planes, no artillery pieces,
And nobody gives a damn.
Nobody gives a damn.
This was my second year at the memorial, mostly because of Cheryl’s earlier efforts. It was through her I met Col. Ben Skardon, one of the survivors. Ben is 93 years old and was among the 15 veterans of Bataan who attended the memorial. And it must be noted, a survivor who doesn’t embody the feelings expressed in Hewlett’s poem
The opening ceremony was at the crack of dawn. The eastern sky was salmon-pink. The Organ Mountains to the west were lighted just enough to show some detail. The military ceremony included a well-sung rendition of our national anthem and the presentation of colors. The surviving veterans were introduced. Then the MC called the role. She first asked three of the survivors to respond and they did with strong, proud voices. They she called the names of the veterans who passed into history since last year’s march. Between the names there was not a sound with the exception of the wind. I hoped others were quiet because they, as I, were gritting their teeth to keep the sobs from following the tears down my cheeks. After the last name was read, the bugler plays Taps.These men are ... and were ... true American heros and there can never be enough said or done on their behalf to honor the sacrifice they made.
And while Frank Hewlett may have thought nobody gave a damn, I can testify every one of the 6,300 people in attendance Sunday morning deeply care and show they do give a damn. Moreover, the survivors have become role models for the young men and women serving in the military. They know the risks they take and I hope they find strength and solace in knowing these veterans.
The survivors sit or stand at the starting line and the runners/hikers stop by to shake their hands and thank them for their service to America. They are greeted by so many, their hands must hurt, but it’s a pain they love to feel.
When the last runner/hiker had passed by, we ... family and friends constituting Ben’s Brigade ... joined the Colonel, who has become a celebrity because he joins in the hike. We marched out into the desert and along the dirt roads for 8-1/2 miles. Last year, Col. Skardon walked me into the ground after three miles. I was determined to stay with him this year and had trained, although not nearly enough. I took point and kept it, feeling like I was guarding the Colonel’s honor, until we reached our destination.
At some point in the future, Col. Skardon, too, will pass into history, and I intend to continue to honor him by hiking in my bright orange shirt with Ben’s picture as a young officer and the name Ben’s Brigade blazoned across my chest. I’ll do it proudly.
By Bud Russo