Monday, March 18, 2013

Remembering Bataan

This April 9th marks the 71st anniversary of the 1942 Bataan Death March of WWII. On March 17th of this year, the veterans who suffered during the infamous event were honored at the 24th annual memorial march at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.

WWII Poster that urges civilian workers to

"Remember Bataan and Corregidor." National
Archives image ARC 515483
I just finished writing an introductory chapter for a book on the 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment during WWII. The subject is the Japanese successes in the beginning of the war, paying particular attention to the fall of the Philippines. (The 503rd Parachute Regimental Combat Team is the unit that took back Corregidor in 1945.) My editor/proof reader/wife, Sheila, now with her radar tuned to the subject, passed on an article in Stars and Stripes to me about an event that honors the veterans of this tragic episode in American military history. As I was unaware of this annual happening, I'd like to share the information with you here, as I'm guessing there is a few readers out there that did not know about the annual Bataan Memorial Death March either.

During the fight for the island nation in early 1942, American and Filipino forces withdrew to the Bataan Peninsula on the north end of the opening to Manila Bay, on the west coast of the island of Luzon. Allied forces, without reinforcement or resupply, held out for almost five months before surrendering on April 9, 1942. Approximately 76,000 Allied soldiers (just short of 12,000 Americans, the rest Filipino) became prisoners of war. Almost a month later, the island fortress of Corregidor in Manila Bay surrendered, with nearly 15,000 (a majority of American) Allied soldiers following their comrades into captivity.

The Japanese force marched their prisoners, who were sick, exhausted, and diseased, over sixty miles non-stop to prison camps in the interior of Luzon. Exact casualty figures are not possible, but it is estimated that between five and ten thousand Filipino soldiers and from six hundred to a thousand Americans died on what became known to history as the "Bataan Death March." Thousands more would die in POW camps before being liberated in 1945. The news of these atrocities of course made it back to the United States. During the war the public was galvanized in their resolve to win the war with "Remember Bataan," "Remember Corregidor," as well as "Remember Pearl Harbor."

Both soldiers and civilians participate in the Bataan Memorial 
Death March through the desert at While Sands, NM to honor
WWII veterans of the tragic Bataan Death March of WWII.
USAF photo.
For a few years after the end of WWII, Americans acknowledged "Bataan Day" but it fell out of the collective memory in favor of "Pearl Harbor Day" and "V-J Day." April 9th remains a national holiday in the Philippines, known as "The Day of Valor." However, it came to the attention of the Army ROTC detachment at New Mexico State University that there were many veterans of the Bataan Death March living in there state. The 200th and 150th Coast Artillery were units from the New Mexico National Guard that had been mobilized and sent to reinforce the Philippines before the Japanese attack. In 1989 the New Mexico State ROTC cadets organized the first Bataan Memorial Death March through the high desert of the White Sands Missile Range near Las Cruces, NM.

Now in its 24th year, the memorial march is a rough 26.2 miles through the desert at high elevation. Both civilians and soldiers come to march (and many to run) the course to honor those veterans who suffered through the original Death March. This year there were thirteen veterans able to attend the memorial and witness over three thousand take to the route to honor their service and sacrifice. The weather in New Mexico, apparently dry and in the mid-seventies, probably seemed perfect for the event. Compare that to the forecast for Manila, which was 96 degrees with over 60% humidity.

The Bataan Memorial Death March now has a long list of sponsors, most notably the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW). But I'd like first throw out a "well done!" to the ROTC cadets who organized this event in the first place. And second, give a shout out to the folks who take the time to travel out to a military reservation out in the desert and gut out twenty-six as their way of showing these veterans that we remember. Keep this on your radar. Who knows, maybe one day we'll see each other there.

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