The 29th Bataan Memorial Death March in Photos

By Katie Lange
Defense Media Activity

It’s not every day you see World War II prisoners of war as the honorary guests at a marathon commemorating their sacrifices. But it does happen once a year – at the Bataan Memorial Death March.

Bill Overmier, 97, a member of the New Mexico National Guard when he was taken prisoner in the Philippines, salutes as he receives a Congressional Gold medal ahead of the Bataan Memorial Death March. DoD photo by Katie Lange

The event honors the more than 76,000 POWs and missing in action who defended the Philippine Bataan Peninsula and Corregidor Island in the months after the Pearl Harbor bombings.

The Bataan march is considered one of the toughest marathon-length events in the U.S. The course starts on New Mexico’s White Sands Missile Range and throws everything at you – windblown sands, tractionless dirt roads, hot desert sun and big elevation changes.

A soldier stops for water after a grueling uphill portion of the march about 20 miles in. DoD photo by Katie Lange

The record-breaking 8,471 registered marchers this year ran the gamut from JROTC members and wounded warriors to active-duty service members.

Active-duty service members joined wounded warriors at the march. DoD photo by Katie Lange

The day kicked off early – 6:30 a.m. – with a ceremony honoring six of the veterans of the real 1942 Bataan Death March. Harold Bergbower, Oscar Leonard, Bill Overmier, James Bollich, Paul Kerchum and Ben Skardon were given a hero’s welcome in front of thousands of marchers.

Thousands of marchers listen to the opening ceremony in the early morning before the start of the 2018 Bataan Memorial Death March. DoD photo by Katie Lange

“To be here to see the survivors – when you see people are still alive from that time, it’s a great honor,” said marcher Karolina Wyszecka, a member of the German air force stationed at nearby Holloman Air Force Base.

As the sun began to rise, waves of marchers and runners set off. Everyone was pretty gung-ho and crammed together at the start, but the sea of people eventually spread out after a few miles as the runners broke away and the speediest marchers pressed on.

Volunteers hand out sustenance to marchers after the first few miles of the memorial march. So far, so good! DoD photo by Katie Lange

While some said the wind was their biggest challenge, for many others it was a several-mile trek up a mountain around mile 15.

“The hardest part every year that kicks my butt is that long three miles of asphalt hill followed by a dirt hill,” said David Tatham, a fifth-year participant whose grandfather served in the Navy.

Participants hustle up a dirt hill at White Sands Missile Range, N.M., March 25, 2018. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Matthew McGovern

That “hill” is more like a mountain, really – one that’s followed by a much-despised sand pit.

“You gain about 1,000 feet to 1,500 feet in elevation going up that long, arduous hill. Your legs are just exhausted. You’re exhausted and maybe dehydrated, then you hit the sand. And that just zaps the rest of the energy out of you,” said five-time marcher Joseph Altobello, who wife is active-duty Air Force.

Slowing down. Participants in the 2018 Bataan Memorial Death March had several miles of mountain to climb. Army photo by Pvt. Matthew J. Marcellus

Thankfully, the weather cooperated and turned out to be ideal for the grueling desert hike.

“The last part, the wind blew from the mountain and there were some dust storms. It was not so fun, but better than sunburn on your head,” said German air force Master Sgt. Daniel Leiser, a first-time runner.

A group of ROTC cadets participate in the Bataan Memorial Death March, March 25, 2018, at White Sands Missile Range. Army photo by Spc. Gabrielle Weaver

Some came out, believe it or not, just for training – including for the upcoming Army Best Ranger Competition.

“Our battalion commander thought this would be a great way to gauge where we are in training,” said Army 1st Lt. Joseph Royster, who did the march alongside his Best Ranger partner, 1st Lt. Greg Bremser. “It was definitely harder than I thought it was going to be.”

Army 1st Lt. Joseph Royster and his friend, 1st Lt. Greg Bremser, power through the Bataan course. Both are using the march as training for the Army Best Ranger Competition. DoD photo by Army Staff Sgt. Bruce Petitt

“I thought about the guys back then in Bataan – what they had to do and their hardships, and they motivated me to keep going and push through the pain,” Bremser said.

That certainly kept Coast Guard Cdr. Gene Anzano going. His granduncle was in the U.S. and Filipino armies during World War II and also survived Bataan.

Coast Guard Cdr. Gene Anzano gives a thumbs up on the uphill portion of the Bataan Memorial Death March. Photo by Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Jen Martinez

“He passed away almost 12 years ago, but I’m honoring his memory and his sacrifices to this nation and the Philippines,” Anzano said.

The day before the race, the six survivors in attendance were honored with Congressional Gold Medals.

#BataanDeathMarch survivors get a standing ovation after receiving Congressional Gold Medals during a ceremony ahead of the #BataanMemorialDeathMarch2018 #HonorThem #BataanMarch #KnowYourMil

Posted by U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) on Saturday, March 24, 2018

They held meet-and-greets with march participants eager to get their autographs and hear their stories, many of which were of a lighter nature. As 97-year-old Bergbower put it, he’d rather rehash the good memories than the bad – like the time he saw the enemy after being recruited last-minute as a gunner on a bombing mission.

Retired U.S. Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Harold Bergbower, 97, talks with an audience about his experiences during World War II and the Bataan Death March. DoD photo by Katie Lange

“The pilot dropped a bomb on a ship, but he missed it. He pulled around and said, ‘I didn’t hear the machine gun going.’ And I said, ‘No, I was too damned scared!’” Bergbower recalled to a laughing audience.

After Sunday’s race, the survivors shook hands with marchers at the finish line.

Bergbower shakes hands with Bataan Memorial Death March participants at the race’s finish line. DoD photo by Army Staff Sgt. Bruce Petitt

“For many, their presence is one of the most unique parts of the event.

U.S. Air Force retired Chief Master Sgt. Paul Kerchum, a World War II Bataan Death March survivor, greets participants of the memorial march before step-off. Army photo by Spc. Gabrielle Weaver

You read books and see movies. You hear things from other people, but you have to see it to believe it,” said Army Lt. Col. Jose Garcia.

It really is an event you have to witness to understand. For those who have been lucky enough to attend and meet some of the quickly dwindling survivors, it most definitely is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

High five! Two marchers celebrate finishing a grueling 26.2 miles as they reach the Bataan Memorial Death March finish line. DoD photo by Army Staff Sgt. Bruce Petitt

Great job to all the participants!!

DoD @ the Bataan Memorial Death March

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The 29th Bataan Memorial Death March in Photos