Walking in Their Steps: Remembering the Bataan Death March
Updated: Apr 11, 2022
By David Cordero
Covering 26.2 miles on foot can be a challenge, even for those who consider themselves physically fit. Now, add a 35-pound backpack. Seems more like pure torture, doesn’t it? That's exactly how Sergeant First Class Eddie Quimby, Recruiting NCO for Ogden Army Recruiting Station, described his experience with the Bataan Memorial Death March.
Quimby is organizing a Bataan Memorial Death March to honor the thousands of servicemen forced to make that perilous 66-mile journey 80 years ago following the largest-ever surrender of armed forces under American command. The original memorial march has its origins in New Mexico, but it has transitioned to a virtual race due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Regardless of its iteration, one goal abides: to ensure the world doesn’t forget that horrific event and those that experienced it.
“I feel it is extremely important for not only the ones that choose to participate in the march but all of America to remember the sacrifices made,” Quimby says. “As a nation, we need to remember our past and those that have made the ultimate sacrifice for the freedoms of this country.”
The Utah version of the march is scheduled to begin March 25 at 5 a.m. at Steed Park in Clearfield. Soldiers of the Salt Lake City Army Recruiting Battalion of the 6th Army Recruiting Brigade will participate. Members of the public are invited as well — should they want to bear the physical toll of walking the length of a marathon while effectively carrying a cinder block on their back.
“I am very grateful for those that have served before me,” Quimby says. “I can only hope to measure up to a third of what they have done for this country.”
The participants can take heart in knowing they won’t be tortured during the walk. The same couldn’t be said eight decades ago.
Path to Bataan
The Japanese attack of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, thrust the United States into World War II. The onslaught continued in U.S. territories throughout the Pacific such as Wake Island, Midway Island, Guam and the Philippines as Japan sought conquest on the southern portion of the Pacific.
For three and a half months, U.S. troops on the
Philippine island of Luzon fought valiantly to defend the fortress Corregidor and other harbor-defense forts of Manila Bay. The Japanese attacked unceasingly, raining bombs onto the Bataan defenders while U.S. forces lacked basic resources such as food and medical attention. Inexperienced, poorly supplied and beset by jungle illnesses such as malaria, American troops were forced to the southern tip of the Bataan Peninsula.
Then came the inevitable surrender.
On April 9, 1942, 76,000 American and Filipino troops from a variety of different military branches, including the Army, Navy, Marines and Army Air Corps were taken prisoner and set out on foot toward Cabanatuan, approximately 66 hot and dusty miles to the north.
The fighting was over. The heartbreak had just begun.
Gene Jacobsen, who served with the 20th Pursuit Squadron of the Army Air Corps, and later became a professor at the University of Utah, was part of the march. He described it in his memoir, We Refused to Die. “The Japanese gave us neither food nor water, and the only times we had anything to eat or water to drink were when we could steal a stalk of sugarcane from an adjacent field or a cup of water from one of the many flowing wells along the road we were traveling.”
The lack of provisions and drinking water were not the only problems. American and Filipino prisoners had to deal with unpredictable and maniacal Japanese soldiers who would take pleasure in beating U.S. prisoners for small offenses — or no offenses at all. A boot to the ribs, a poke of the bayonet, a rifle butt to the back — these pointless, sadistic acts were commonplace throughout the march, which snaked along for eight days.
The resolve of American troops was put to the test.
“During the entire march, the Japanese changed their guards at regular intervals, keeping fresh troops to watch us at all times,” Jacobsen wrote. “These well-fed men badgered us constantly, insisting that we move along rapidly, yet constantly making it difficult for us to walk at all. Crowded together as we were and in our poor physical condition, it was almost humanly impossible to keep up the pace they demanded.”
During the Bataan Death March, approximately 10,000 men died. Thousands of others died in captivity over nearly 34 months before a daring rescue on January 30, 1945 — deemed the “Great Raid” — finally liberated the long-suffering servicemen.
The Bataan Memorial Death March was founded in 1989, by ROTC cadets at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces. A challenging march through the high desert terrain of the White Sands Missile Range, the intent was to honor the men from the New Mexico 200th Coast Artillery, which had 829 men die or go missing during the march or subsequent imprisonment.
A virtual event in 2022, those interested in a finisher medal can sign up at bataanmarch.com. Those who don’t want a medal can join the walk down the Rio Grande Trail — “almost parallel to Farmington High School,” Quimby says — for 13.1 miles before turning around and heading back.
Quimby says the 35-pound packs are optional for the public. The soldiers involved in the event will be carrying them.
This year’s march will raise money for Heroes Sports, a 501c3 non-profit organization for both active duty and veteran military members that incorporate sports and recreational activities to increase mental and physical health, and team building. Heroes Sports also assists returning combat veterans in becoming more involved with society to ensure a smooth transition into civilian life.
You can contribute directly to Heroes Sports at www.heroessports.org/donate.
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