Coyotes complete Bataan Memorial Death March

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Terry Martin
  • 190th Air Refueling Wing
The day started at 0430. That was the report time to White Sands Missile Range Base, New Mexico, on March 27th. This was a day of remembrance - a day to honor those American men who in 1942 were captured by Japanese forces and forced to march through treacherous terrain of the Philippines to the prisoner of war camp, Camp O'Donnell. American and Filipino troops were systematically executed; the sick and weak were pushed to exhaustion before being bayoneted or beat to death with the butt end of the captors' rifles. Many of the 54,000 who reached Camp O'Donnell would succumb to disease or torture while imprisoned. Within two months of surrender, more than 21,000 men perished. The Bataan "Death March" is known as one of the greatest inhumanities of WWII, and also as one of the greatest displays of heroism and human will power on the part of its survivors.

Every year Bataan survivors gather at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico to remember their comrades in the Bataan Memorial Death March. This year, a record 6,400 people from all 50 states and four countries participated. The march is open to the public and military members can participate in either the individual or team category (5

This year, a group of five from the 190th assembled a team consisting of Col. Kyle Garrison, Lt. Col. Tim Stevens, Lt. Col. Bill Hefner and Master Sgt. Jeff Norling and Master Sgt. Terry Martin. Senior Airman Megan Carlson also participated in the individual category. Garrison, who served as team captain and assembled the team, did it to honor the survivors. "When I first read about the march two or three years ago, I mentioned to Lt. Col. Hefner that we should put a team together," said Garrison. "Those men need to be honored... and I've always wanted to do it."

The team entered into the "military light" category, which required the wear of ABUs and a camelback. In addition, all teams were required to start and finish the 26.2 mile march within 20 seconds of each other or risk being disqualified.

The day before the march, the team had the privilege of visiting with one of the survivors, Mr. John Mims. Mims was very gracious with his time and was a rambunctious fellow. We later learned that Mims, then a Private First Class, observed a Japanese sergeant accidently drop a bottle of Coca Cola. "I picked it up and handed it back" Mims said. The Japanese soldier then smashed the bottle into Mims's lower jaw, shattering his bottom row of teeth. Mims's infraction: "I didn't bow."

During the march Hefner served as the team motivator. He has completed more than 25 marathons and understood the framework and challenges associated with completing a 26.2 mile course. He advised the team when to take their nutrient supplements and encouraged every team member at different points in the march. It seemed whenever anyone started to hit a mental wall questioning whether they could keep going Hefner was there.

It was a tough course, over 80% of the route consisted of sand and dirt. The winds were consistently 40 mph with gusts up to 60 mph in the first half of the course. Also at one point in the march, the team went up hill for six consecutive miles. "In all the marathons I have run, I have never gone up hill for six straight miles," said Hefner.

Nearing the finish, in the last ½ mile the team could start to hear the cheers and sense the end. Legs gained strength as the team of five formed into a straight line across locking arms about 20 yards before the finish line. In those final steps some of the team members experience self contained moments of emotion. It was an overwhelming feeling of joy, relief and a sense of something bigger than ones' self. A few minutes after crossing the finish line, the team reflected on what they had just accomplished. "No matter what we say, no words can describe how difficult this was," said Norling. Indeed it was a physical strain, but nothing compares to the suffering of those men who in 1942 endured one of the greatest death marches in history know as Bataan.