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Bataan Death March Memorial marks 70th anniversary of deadly march

WHITE SANDS MISSLE RANGE, N.M. – Leonard Robinson, 93, a survivor of the Bataan Death March, gives an interview March 25. Sixteen survivors attended the 23rd annual Bataan Memorial Death March. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman DeAndre Curtiss / Released)

WHITE SANDS MISSLE RANGE, N.M. – Leonard Robinson, 93, a survivor of the Bataan Death March, gives an interview March 25. Sixteen survivors attended the 23rd annual Bataan Memorial Death March. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman DeAndre Curtiss / Released)

WHITE SANDS MISSLE RANGE, N.M. – Participants of the 23rd annual Bataan Memorial Death March attend the opening ceremonies here March 25, before starting the event. The march, which has been at WSMR since 1992, offers two different courses – a 26.2 mile and 15.2 mile honorary course. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman DeAndre Curtiss / Released)

WHITE SANDS MISSLE RANGE, N.M. – Participants of the 23rd annual Bataan Memorial Death March attend the opening ceremonies here March 25, before starting the event. The march, which has been at WSMR since 1992, offers two different courses – a 26.2 mile and 15.2 mile honorary course. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman DeAndre Curtiss / Released)

WHITE SANDS MISSILE RANGE, N.M. – A participant of the opening ceremony at the 23rd Annual Bataan Memorial Death March holds a flag March 25, during a moment of silence. The event, attended by a record number of more than 6,700 marchers, commemorates the original Bataan Death March which occurred in the Philippines during World War II. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman DeAndre Curtiss / Released)

WHITE SANDS MISSILE RANGE, N.M. – A participant of the opening ceremony at the 23rd Annual Bataan Memorial Death March holds a flag March 25, during a moment of silence. The event, attended by a record number of more than 6,700 marchers, commemorates the original Bataan Death March which occurred in the Philippines during World War II. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman DeAndre Curtiss / Released)

WHITE SANDS MISSILE RANGE, N.M. -- Frank Hewlett wrote:

We're the battling bastards of Bataan;
No mama, no papa, no Uncle Sam.
No aunts, no uncles, no cousins, no nieces,
No pills, no planes, no artillery pieces.
And nobody gives a damn.
Nobody gives a damn.

This poem has been spoken year after year to those in attendance at the Bataan Memorial Death March, and it was no different this year as more than 6,700 men and women came from all over the United States and many other countries around the world.

The Bataan Memorial Death March is an annual event held to honor a special group of World War II veterans. On April 9, 1942, tens of thousands of American and Filipino soldiers surrendered to Japanese forces while defending the islands of Luzon, Corregidor and the harbor defense forts of the Philippines.

During the battle, they fought in a malaria-infested region, with almost no medical support and only half rations, but the real hardship and torment began after they were captured. They were forced to march for days in the scorching heat of the Philippine jungle. During the march, they traveled more than 60 miles, losing more than 1,000 people to death while those who survived became prisoners of war.

"It's truly an honor to be here and look out and see a sea of people gathered to honor an amazing group of veterans," said Brig. Gen. John Ferrari, White Sands Missile Range commander. "As we gather before such history, we should remember that we are only one part in a line of service members who have served this country since 1776."

The march, which has been at WSMR since 1992, offers two different courses - a 26.2 mile and 15.2 mile honorary course. The course covered mountains, highways and sandpits, which provided participants with a tough challenge, though the difficulty pales in comparison to what the veterans of the Bataan march went through.

"They went through true hell, and I don't know if I would have been able to go through all of that, so I believe that speaks to how amazing these gentlemen are," said Gregory James, former U.S. Army sergeant, who participated in the event.

The Bataan Memorial Death March has continued to grow year after year. The original event in 1989 only had 100 participants - a number that has since skyrocketed to more than 6,700, a new record for the 23 year-running event. This year's event also had more than 1,200 volunteers giving out water, energy drinks, fruit slices and medical care along the entire course.

"It's a challenging march," said Al Strait, 21st Space Wing Director of Staff, who completed the 26.2-mile march in 6 hours, 24 minutes. "It's very humbling to be part of something that so many gave so much for."

Strait has marched in the event for the past seven or eight years for varying reasons.

"My dad fought in the Pacific campaign and received the Purple Heart, so it has personal meaning to me," he said. "Today there are wounded warriors participating, and I see what they have sacrificed for my freedom today. It is very humbling to see the sacrifices from the past and the sacrifices of our armed forces of today."

Strait plans on participating again next year, and encourages Airmen and civilians from Team Peterson to join him on the course.

Every year, the march is broken down into age groups, and participants can enter several different team or individual categories. The most challenging category - the heavy category - requires participants to carry a ruck sack weighing at least 35 pounds.

This year's memorial marked the 70th anniversary of the surrender and subsequent march, a milestone that the survivors and their families are fully aware of.

"I told my family what happen to me as a prisoner of war from the first day I got home, said Leonard Robinson, 93, a survivor of the Bataan Death March, who traveled from Casper, Wyo., to attend. "I want people to take away three things from my experience: first, you need to talk about it; second, have faith in God; and third, never hold a grudge; the things we go through in life are not worth holding on to and complaining - just live."

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