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My personal journey: the Bataan Memorial Death March

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Michael Matkin
  • 161st Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs
I enjoy new and different experiences. I often do things just to say I’ve done them. A friend once said I’m a collector of experiences. This isn’t to say I’ve lived a crazy, adrenalin-filled life, but if I have the opportunity to do something I have never done before - I’m in. This was my initial motivation for participating in the Bataan Memorial Death March this year.

To put this in perspective, a video is shown quite often by my coworkers in the public affairs office of me being voluntarily tasered by security forces. My PA family loves it. I’ll admit it is quite funny. When office visitors see this video, they ask why, as a public affairs specialist, I volunteered to be tasered. It was simply because I had never experienced it and now I can say I have. 

I believe experiences, whether good or bad, build dynamic personalities, which is to say, someone who has a well-rounded character. Participating in events, especially cultural, allows us to view the world from a different point of view; thus, equipping us with a greater capability for empathy. This is one thing I especially enjoy - viewing the world through someone else’s eyes. When I see someone tasered, I know exactly how they feel!

I wanted to experience the Bataan Memorial Death March, which commemorates the infamous 65-mile forced march of more than 60,000 American and Filipino troops during World War II. If you do not know its history, I urge you to learn more. The perseverance of the men who survived through horrendous conditions is beyond belief.

Here’s a little about the course: participants can choose, as a group or individual, the long course (26.2 miles), or the short course (14.2 miles). Participants can also choose to march in the heavy division, which requires you to carry a 35-pound rucksack or choose the light division, which doesn’t require a pack. Additionally, those with a valid military identification can participate in uniform.

I am relatively close to the course, which winds its way through the desert terrain of White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico. A lot of people travel, literally, from all over the world to participate in this event. So, I’m sorry to say, distance wasn’t an excuse for having not participated sooner.

So, what was the hold-up? Why hadn’t I already bagged this experience? I’ll admit, for me, the course is a little daunting.

Part of my “collecting” of experiences is this desire to get the whole experience, not just an abridged version. So, of course, I wanted to compete in the heavy division while in uniform, even though competing in that division is what makes it, for me, daunting. 

I am an experienced hiker, but my usual hike consists of a two-to-three day hike averaging approximately 14 miles a day. Also, I’m not in the best shape these days. So, the idea of carrying 35 pounds for 26.2 miles in one day, and in uniform, seemed undoable. I’m 100 percent positive I could complete it without a pack and in civilian clothes, but for me, it’s all or nothing. 

The push to finally go for it this year came when one of my Army battle buddies from an Afghanistan deployment, who is now stationed in New Mexico, mentioned he was going to participate this year. Well, if he was going to do it, so would I.

I began training in November, a few months before the event. I decided to fill my five-pound pack with a large bag of pinto beans and a couple small items, which added up to the required 35 pounds; although, I figure I had about another 4.5 pounds of water starting out as well. Filling your rucksack with food is encouraged as it is donated after the march to a local charity.

I determined a good way to gauge my readiness for the course was to walk a local path along a canal. This would provide me the ability to turn around if I felt I might not be able to walk the distance back. Also, I could easily call my wife to come pick me up! I surprised myself by completing 19 miles the first attempt; however, by the time I made it back to my truck there was no way I could’ve walked another mile – maybe not even another foot. My feet were sore and I could feel very large blisters on two of my toes.

My next attempt, about six weeks later, I completed 21 miles on the same path and my feet did slightly better. I was gaining confidence about being able to do this! 

For my third practice run, I drove out to the desert and walked a dirt road with many steep hills. The actual course is basically a dirt road with a single hill climb and I wanted to add those elements to the rehearsal. Although I only hiked about 17 miles this time, I felt the hills added a more strenuous effect. My feet and toes were getting adapted and were performing much better than they did back in November; however, in an attempt to make sure my feet were fully healed, I decided this would be my last trial run before the actual course. I did continue to run outside and on an elliptical though.

I arrived at White Sands Missile Range the day before the march for in-processing. While standing in line I caught portions of conversations of those in line with me. There were hints of trepidation, anticipation and a little bit of fear, but overall, there was a sense of excitement. 

These emotions carried over to the morning of the event, except as I entered the area where those marching in the Military Heavy category were grouped, there was now this sense of comradery. Service members were introducing themselves, getting to know strangers and speaking words of encouragement to each other. This comradery between marchers continued throughout the course. In fact, I don’t think I’ve experienced a stronger sense of Esprit de Corps.

As the opening ceremony began I was struck by the beauty of it. The sun was breaking upon the nearby mountain range and illuminating a large U.S. flag, hung by the ladder of a firetruck. It was an incredibly strong sight and you couldn’t ask for a more perfect backdrop for the opening ceremonies. 

During the opening ceremony, the Philippine and U.S. national anthems were sung. I was surprised that we were called to present arms during the Philippine anthem. I don’t know how common this is, but I would think it is incredibly uncommon to salute another country’s anthem. It was an unbelievably strong moment. I became immediately aware of the strong bond our countries have, and always will have, due to the shared historical experience of the Bataan Death March. This bond was also clearly evident by watching eight of the survivors interact with each other. At the start of the race I was able to shake two of the survivor’s hands. It was an incredible honor that I will always remember.

This bond between countries extended to the participants. I saw marchers from Denmark, Germany, England, Lithuania and Singapore. Around mile 24 I passed by a German and we smiled and gave a thumbs up of encouragement to each other.  I thought to myself, a few generations ago and during the same war we were marching in remembrance of, our countries were enemies, but here we were - together - sharing an experience and honoring those before us.

Honoring service members is a big part of the Bataan Memorial Death March. It is tradition to march in remembrance of fallen military members; typically from your unit or someone you knew. From my unit, March 13 marked the 35th anniversary of when four 161st Air Refueling Group Airmen lost their lives while on-duty. In 1982, a KC-135 Stratotanker, call sign Copper 5 and tail number 57-1489, launched from Sky Harbor International Airport, Phoenix, on a training mission. At approximately 10:20 a.m. Copper 5 and her crew descended into the Phoenix area for transitions at Luke Air Force Base, Glendale, Arizona. It was during this phase of that flight that a civilian aircraft collided with the tail section of the aircraft and the crew of Copper 5 was lost. Killed in the line of duty were Lt. Col. James N. Floor, pilot; Maj. Truman R. Young, pilot; Lt. Col. Ted L. Beam, navigator; and Tech. Sgt. Donald J. Plough, boom operator. I marched in memorial of these fellow Copperheads, as members of my unit are affectionately known.  I had “Copper 5” written across the back of my pack and carried a short bio of each Airman in my pack.

Carrying that pack and crossing the finish line was a feat. I heard one of the organizers say he didn’t think it had ever been as hot as it was that day – 89 degrees. The course was also much more difficult than I expected. I researched it and knew there was a hill, but I didn’t realize it was a steady incline for about seven miles. I swear more than half of the course is uphill, with only maybe three miles of downhill. Also, the deep sand we trudged through at different points and over several miles was much more difficult than I had imagined. 

There were times I had to tell myself, “Just make it to the next water station and then you can take a breather,” pushing myself further and further along. As I drove home, I was listening to an audio book about Bataan, which I had also listened to during the event. One of the survivors told how one of the ways he made it through was by telling himself to “just make it around that bend” and on he would go. 

Marchers like to think they are somehow experiencing a tiny, and I mean an incredibly tiny, portion of what the survivors experienced. I don’t think anyone is under the illusion that we are suffering as they did, but this is why we are here - to honor them through a difficult march; however, it wasn’t until I heard that quote, that I really felt the link personally. 

I started this journey as just another experience to “collect”; however, it means so much more to me now that I have experienced it. It will be something I will always remember. It is something that I want to do again and not just for the physical experience, but for mental and almost spiritual experience of honoring the men of the original Bataan Death March.