The Bataan Death March, which took place on the Philippine island of Luzon 56 years ago this month, was perhaps the greatest atrocity ever inflicted on U.S. soldiers. After surrendering to the invading forces of Japanese General Masharu Homma, some 15,000 Americans, starving, shell-shocked and ravaged by tropical diseases, were forced to march 65 miles through miasmal jungles to camps in the north of Luzon. Along the way, 10,000 soldiers died from water deprivation or dysentery or were executed by their Japanese captors. Since then, the phrase "Bataan Death March" has been used to describe any experience that is unimaginably toilsome and draining. But the details of the original march, and the profound suffering of those who were subjected to it, have largely receded from memory. Which is why, a little more than a decade ago, an ROTC cadet from New Mexico named Ray Pickering decided to create a footrace to honor the victims of Bataan. On April 19 the White Sands ( N.M.) Missile Range will be the site of the 10th Bataan Memorial Death March, a kind of athletic passion play that's part endurance race, part military exercise and part retrospective on the horrors of war.
At dawn's first light, more than 1,500 runners will assemble on this military post under the glowing pink ramparts of the Organ Mountains. Several hundred survivors of Bataan, many of them propped on canes or perched in wheelchairs, will gather on a stage for the playing of Taps. Speeches will be made, the dead will be remembered, and the vets and the athletes will salute one another. Then the runners will take off on a route that worms 25 miles over mesquite-covered wasteland, past herds of wild horses and alongside the ruins of a ranch and various mysterious projectiles.
Although the ethos of the race is decidedly Great Santini, it's open to civilians. Running in the vanguard will be your basic sinewy, gibbon-physiqued ultramarathoners in their Nikes and Oakleys. Then come boot-clomping, buzz-cut hordes of U.S. soldiers and National Guardsmen, many of whom run in the "heavy division," which requires them to complete the race bearing 35-pound rucksacks. Soldiers from several other NATO countries also run the race. In fact, to the chagrin of the U.S. military contingent, a gung ho crew from Great Britain's 47th Royal Artillery Regiment has cleaned up in the team heavy division for seven years.
Bringing up the rear are people who might be described as memorial walkers: folks who lost a dad or an uncle or an older brother in the original death march and have come to pay their respects.
This year one of these walkers will be an Army veteran from El Paso named Winston Shillito. The remarkably fit 78-year-old Shillito was a young soldier at the siege and fall of Bataan and languished for three years in Japanese prison camps. Shillito has finished the march two years in a row (last year's time: a hair over nine hours) and will be the only Bataan veteran participating this year. "I like to lend a little bit of authenticity to this event," Shillito says in a husky Southwestern drawl. "You can't compare the two experiences, obviously. For one thing, that was a forced march. You either did it or you died. With this event, you can stop anytime you want."
Although the parched scrubland of southern New Mexico seems worlds away from the Philippine jungle, there is an undeniable resonance to this event. New Mexico lost more men in the Bataan Death March than any other state. For those who survived, it was the atomic bomb, developed in secret at Los Alamos, N.M., that secured their freedom. And it was in White Sands, at the Trinity Site on the north end of this range, that the first atomic device was detonated. Bataan survivors feel at home on this old post, and they come year after year for a bittersweet reunion of old chums.
Still, there is something slightly askew about equating, even metaphorically, the hardships of endurance sports and an experience such as Bataan. While the runners are out in the kiln heat, collecting foot blisters and fighting sunstroke, the vets stick around the post, rekindling friendships. Shillito was in a small group of Americans who were lucky enough to be trucked from Bataan to the prison camps, so he was spared the original death march—which may explain why he feels compelled to keep doing the memorial march.
"I was fortunate enough to have been in the right place at the right time," says Shillito. "If I had made that march then, I might not be able to march now. So I do this walk in memory of all my good friends who didn't make it home."