CANNON AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. — "Sand, hills and pain," an elderly marcher said, describing the 26.2 mile Bataan Memorial Death March, held March 30 at White Sands Missile Range, N.M.
The 19th annual march honored the men and women forced to march by Japanese soldiers in the Bataan Death March during World War II. Thousands of those forced to marched died during the journey.
More than 4,400 Airmen, Soldiers, Marines, Sailors and civilians participated in the march and experienced in small part what many thousands of American and Filipino soldiers went through after surrendering to Japanese forces in April 1942. Many Air Commandos from Cannon stepped up to the challenge for both personal reward and reflection.
"You can read about it, listen to things about it, and watch movies about it," said 2nd Lt. John Fuson, 27th Special Operations Civil Engineer Squadron. "But to come out here and participate in it gives you a little bit of a taste of what they went through to really truly honor them."
Lieutenant Fuson and his five-man 27th SOCES team did the full memorial march in uniform with 35-pound rucksacks, requirements of the military team "heavy" category.
The missile range where the memorial march took place is located almost 300 miles away from Cannon near White Sands National Monument. The marathon route snaked through terrain that changed from asphalt to deep sand and rugged hills; in 26.2 miles, the vertical elevation changed 1,000 feet. An alternate 15.2-mile march was also available to participants.
Staff Sgts. Angelito Cooper, 27th Special Operations Logistics Readiness Squadron, and Rhallete Javier, 27th SOCES, did the march to remind them of a part of their history. Both sergeants are Filipino-Americans and marched in the military individual "light" category, for which they had to be in full uniform for the duration of the march.
"I’m trying to take part in history," said Sergeant Javier. "I heard stories about [the Bataan Death March] from my parents and grandparents. I want to have stories for my kids, to tell them I did [the memorial march]."
Sergeant Javier was born in the Philippines and his mother was raised in Bataan, while Sergeant Cooper’s grandfather was part of a Filipino-resistance group fighting against the Japanese occupation during World War II.
"I’m here to pay respect for the men and women who died on the Bataan Death March," said Sergeant Cooper. "And also to honor my fellow countrymen."
Similar sentiments were echoed by civilian marathon runners as well, who wrote of the memorial march Web site’s blog, http://www.bataanmarch.com.
"After a day of having direct interaction with our active servicemembers before, during and after the march, I am speechless over the quality and dedication of these individuals," wrote a blogger identified as T.S. from Seattle. "Our country is in capable hands. The morning roll call and opening ceremony left all of us silent and reverent before the start."
Bataan survivors were also on hand to meet people and recount their personal stories.
Carlos Montoya, a Bataan survivor and native of Albuquerque, spoke about his ordeals, from being stationed in the Philippines in 1941 to becoming a prisoner of war in Japan until 1945.
"As we were marching I came across a dead Japanese soldier. Underneath his body there was a manila envelope with pictures of his family and correspondence from classes he had been taking at a Chicago university," said Mr. Montoya.
Mr. Montoya held on to the envelope and pictures even as people within his unit wanted some of the pictures. He didn’t give them up because he wanted to eventually send the full contents of the envelope back to the dead Japanese soldier’s family.
When the Japanese soldiers invaded the island he was on, Mr. Montoya knew he had to get rid of the envelope.
"I buried the envelope and when we got to the next camp, they searched everyone for Japanese articles, pictures and such," he said tearfully. "Anybody that had anything on them was taken away and killed."
Carlos Montoya’s story is just one of many reminders of the sacrifices U.S. Soldiers and others have made to protect America’s freedoms.
Many who marched the 26.2 miles to honor and memorialize people like Mr. Montoya will likely say that it is just a small token in comparison to the ultimate sacrifice of the thousands who died over the course of less than 60 miles.