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.
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.
The record-breaking 8,471 registered marchers this year ran the gamut from JROTC members and wounded warriors to active-duty service members.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
“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.
“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.
“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.
“For many, their presence is one of the most unique parts of the event.
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.
Great job to all the participants!!
DoD @ the Bataan Memorial Death March
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