SCHRIEVER AIR FORCE BASE, Colo.- --
More than 139,000 steps - miles across jungle terrain in humid climate, physically strenuous conditions and threat of death at the hands of their captors, characterized the journey undertaken by the U.S. and Filipino service members who marched across the Bataan Peninsula in the Philippines in what came to be known as the Bataan Death March.
Many of those who marched never reached that 139,000 mark, perishing from the deplorable conditions and captivities’ cruelty. Many more have passed in the years since. While they are no longer here, their memories live on in history, symbolizing the sacrifices made during World War II.
In recognition of their service, a small band of Team Schriever members carted off to White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico, March 18, for the Bataan Memorial Death March. Replacing jungle terrain with desert sands, they marched for 26.2-miles- nearly 56,000 steps – to honor the struggle of those in the original march.
Although paling in comparison to the real event, Schriever participants still faced challenges wading through sand while under a constant desert sun, the only shade coming from two clouds momentarily passing by six hours into the event. Sunburns and blisters were not uncommon.
“It’s a once in a lifetime event; emphasis on once,” said Staff Sgt. Andrew Westbrook, 50th Contracting Squadron. “This is the hardest thing I had to complete hands down. From the 20-mile mark on, I was done mentally and had to force myself to keep going.”
Commemorating the 75th anniversary of the march, the event drew in record breaking crowds, more than 7,200 in total, with service members and civilians representing all military branches and a variety of foreign nations in attendance.
The age of the attendees varied, with 8-year-old Toby Janaros among the youngest in attendance, participating alongside his father, Col. Jason Janaros, 50th Mission Support Group commander.
After the event’s opening ceremony highlighted how participants were standing on the shoulders of giants, Toby Janaros demonstrated this in a literal sense, spending portions of the march on his father’s shoulders.
“It was really hard, the last mile was the hardest part,” said Toby Janaros. “But I am glad I did it.”
One of the oldest participants was 97-year-old retired Army Col. Ben Skardon, a Bataan Death March survivor, and the only one of three in attendance able to march in this year’s event.
All in their 90’s, the number of survivors is dwindling - 26 have passed away since last March.
Team Schriever representatives engaged the chance to honor the service of those who suffered through one of the history’s prominent war time atrocities, and the World War II service of U.S. and Filipino military members in general.
Senior Airman Alexandrea Hopkins, 50th Security Forces Squadron, said participating in the event was her way of honoring her grandfather who fought in WWII.
“His service is one of the reasons I wanted to serve my country. I was proud to finish (the memorial march) and even prouder to do it in memory of the people who died so we can continue to be a part of the greatest nation in the world.”
For more information on the Bataan Memorial Death March and how to register for next year’s event, go to www.bataanmarch.com.