Story by J.M. Simpson
At 25.7 miles, Army veteran Ron O’Ferrall marveled at a wall of stones and clay to his left and the peaks of White Sand to his right.
“I will never forget this wall,” he wrote in an email not long after returning from the 27th annual Bataan Memorial Death March held last Saturday at the White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico.
“It started about mile twenty-four and seemed like forever. We just knew we had to get to the end of this wall and we were done.”
The 26.2-mile march honors a special group of World War II heroes – the soldiers who defended Luzon, Corregidor and the harbor defense forts of the Philippines under nearly impossible conditions.
In early 1942, the Japanese had invaded the Philippines.
American and Filipino forces fought back with outdated equipment, little air power and no medical help as they tried to hold off the invaders.
On April 9, the Japanese army prevailed, forcing the Americans and Filipinos to surrender. These soldiers were marched 60 miles – the Bataan Death March – through the scorching heat of the Philippine jungles.
Thousands died. Those who survived faced the brutality of a prisoner of war camp.
The tragedy of Bataan had a disproportionate affect on New Mexico; many of those captured were members of the 200th Coast Artillery, New Mexico National Guard.
Determined to memorialize their sacrifice, the Army ROTC Department at New Mexico State University began sponsoring the memorial march in 1989.
The event has since grown from about 100 to this year’s 6,600 participants from across the United States and several foreign countries.
In this spirit, a six-member Tactical Tailor ProTeam formed, trained and successfully completed this year’s march.
Joining O’Ferrall were Nate Smith, Marcus Domingue, Ryan Sutton, Matthew Wagner and Nick Benzchewal. All are Army veterans.
For the 26.2-mile march, each man carried 50 pounds on his back. Before leaving the starting line, they all shook hands with four of the original POWs who had survived the original march.
“The consensus of the team was to just walk,” continued O’Ferrall.
This was no leisurely stroll.
About a mile in, the team began to slog through sand. The 40-degree morning temperature began to inch its way up into the 80s.
Dust rose, too. At mile seven, the team made contact with “The Hill.”
“This was about eight miles of steady incline for about twenty-two hundred feet with dusty switchbacks,” continued O’Ferrall.
But the switchbacks offered a view rarely seen.
“The very sight of looking uphill at a sea of people as far as you can see was surreal. Not only for what the POWs in the original Bataan had to endure, but also to see the wounded warriors of our generation walking with missing limbs.”
At the halfway point, the marchers began to descend the hill.
“Believe it or not, downhill was worse on the feet than going uphill,” continued O’Ferrall.
But by this time we were all embracing the suck in silence, waiting and walking toward the last hill and sandpit.”
The sandpit was a gut check, as O’Ferrall and his teammates plodded through sand eight to 12 inches deep for about four miles.
“It wasn’t hard on the feet, but it was a gut check,” added O’Ferrall.
Turning into the last mile, Smith, Domingue, Sutton, Wagner and Benzchewal joined O’Ferrall in finishing together.
“The sun was at its peak; we were tired, hungry and thirsty,” continued O’Ferrall.
“But we also knew that in comparison to what the POWs in the real Bataan faced, what we faced paled in comparison.”
That’s called memorialization.