LAS CRUCES — It could take some time before all the numbers are official, but organizers of Sunday’s 28th annual Bataan Memorial Death March are already calling the grueling marathon and fundraiser a big success.
More than 6,300 people participated in either a 26.2-mile or 14.2-mile march through the desert on White Sands Missile Range’s main post. Sunday’s event commemorated the 75th anniversary of the Bataan Death March, which began April 9, 1942, when American and Filipino military forces, and Filipino civilians, were surrendered to the Japanese army after the Battle of Bataan. Of those involved in the Battle of Bataan, 1,816 were New Mexico National Guard members, who served with the 200th Coastal Artillery or 515 Coast Artillery.
Related: Thousands march to mark 75th anniversary of Bataan
Sunday’s commemorative march was the largest conducted. Altogether 7,200 entries were received, and of those, 6,304 people were at the starting line. The last of 5,598 finishers — a wounded warrior who completed the march in a little more than 15 hours — crossed the finish line at 10:14 p.m. Sunday.
Sunday’s event included daytime temperatures that likely peaked at 90 degrees Fahrenheit. A combination of the heat, the distance, and a portion of the course that reached an altitude of 5,413 feet — more than a mile high in altitude — did cause some marchers to withdraw. Organizers said some marchers who weren’t able to finish were medically evacuated for precautionary reasons. However, no one was seriously injured.
“We had 550 medical volunteers throughout the course, and (marchers) were taken very good care of,” said Lisa Frankson, director of WSMR’s Family and Morale Welfare and Recreation. “Apart from the heat, we didn’t have any other issues.”
Cammy Montoya, WSMR spokeswoman, added, “It was very hot, one of the hottest marches we have ever had. We also had security (personnel) going up and down the course on quads (quad runners) checking on the welfare of marchers. It also made for a safe and secure event.”
The march also included about 1,200 volunteers.
The completion of an 8.5-mile portion of the course by 99-year-old Bataan Death March survivor Ben Skardon, and the collection of 27,510 pounds of food that was donated to food banks were among numerous highlights of the march. For the 10th consecutive year, Skardon, and a group of supporters known as “Ben’s Brigade,” drew rousing cheers from spectators as they finished their portion of the march.
“It was so awesome, you couldn’t believe it,” said Las Crucen Gerald Schurtz, whose father was taken prisoner by the Japanese but did not survive in captivity. “Ben’s Brigade is known for the orange windbreakers they wear. Most of them are Ben’s ex-students, who just idolize him. He was an English professor at Clemson, and the orange windbreakers exemplify the school’s main color.”
Schurtz added he was also moved Sunday by Skardon’s tradition of carrying a pint-sized can of Eagle brand milk.
“He got a can of Eagle brand in a Red Cross package he received (as a prisoner of war) in 1943,” Schurtz said. “He kept that can and took sips from it every now and then. He credits that with keeping him alive.”
Marchers who participated in the “Heavy Division” of Sunday’s march were required to carry 35-pound ruck sacks. Event organizers asked marchers to consider filling their packs with canned goods and nonperishable foods they could donate to food banks upon finishing the march.
This year, Roadrunner Food Bank partnered with Casa de Peregrinos, in Las Cruces, to collect 27,510 pounds of food. More than 9,300 pounds of food directly went to Casa de Peregrinos, according to a news release from Roadrunner Food Bank.
“This even pays homage to the sacrifice of American service members in one of the most beautiful and memorable ways,” said Lorenzo Alba Jr., executive director of Casa de Peregrinos. “This amazing expedition by so many who never want to forget their sacrifice also brings a message of kindness and generosity to the communities in our area. We are blessed and grateful.”
Casa de Peregrinos is the largest and longest-running food pantry in Las Cruces and Doña Ana County. It operates 13 pantries in rural locations throughout the county. Last year, Casa de Peregrinos distributed 2.5 million pounds of food, and 7.5 million pounds in the past four years.
Frankson said a decision about whether to continue capping the march at 7,000 participants will likely be made by July. A factor in the decision is the level of resources needed to stage the event safely.
Schurtz said more events are planned to honor the 75th anniversary of the Bataan Death March. At 4 p.m. April 9, a ceremony to commemorate the surrender of American and Filipino forces will be conducted at Veterans Memorial Park, on Roadrunner Parkway. The ceremony will be the first time it has been conducted in Las Cruces.
“It’s origins go back to 1948,” Schurtz said. “That year, Luis Armijo, a survivor of the Bataan Death March, got inspired and went to the New Mexico National Guard headquarters in Santa Fe. He went there and lowered the American flag, said some words, put up the white flag of surrender, and paid homage to his comrades.
“For a couple to three years he did it by himself. Word got out and people started to join him. It’s become quite a ceremony and it has been done every year since in Santa Fe, and later, in Albuquerque. It’s now finally going to come to Las Cruces.”
New Mexico Department of Veteran Services Secretary Jack R. Fox, a retired brigadier general of the New Mexico National Guard, will be the featured speaker for the April 9 ceremony. A white flag will be raised at Veterans Park, in honor of the New Mexicans who served at Bataan, and the flag will then be replaced with the U.S. flag. The song “God Bless America,” which was often sung by American war prisoners while captives of the Japanese military, will also be sung.
Of the New Mexicans who served in Bataan, Schurtz said four survivors of the Death March are still alive: William Trask, of Clovis; Val De Herrera, from Blanca; Dale Overmier, from Albuquerque; and Las Crucen Julio Barela, who now resides at the New Mexico Veterans’ Home in Truth or Consequences. All of the survivors are in their late 90s.
The ceremony will be conducted near the Bataan Memorial Monument, dedicated in 2002 at Veterans Park.
Steve Ramirez can be reached at 575-541-5452, firstname.lastname@example.org, or @SteveRamirez6 on Twitter.
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