99-year-old survivor walks in Bataan Memorial Death March for the 10th time


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This post initially appeared on DVIDS as well as Clemson University’s website.

The 75th anniversary of WWII’s infamous Bataan Death March was commemorated by 7,200 participants who gathered in the wee morning hours for the 28th Bataan Memorial Death March, Sunday, March 19, at White Sands Missile range.  Once again, retired Clemson University alumnus and professor emeritus Ben Skardon, 99 years young, was the oldest participant and the only survivor of the real Bataan Death March — which began on April 9, 1942 — who walked in the event.

Image: More than 7,200 participants in the 28th annual Bataan Memorial Death March salute as the National Anthem plays during opening ceremonies at White Sands Missile Range, N.M., March 19, 2017. (U.S. Army Reserve photo by Staff Sgt. Ken Scar)

More than 7,200 participants in the 28th annual Bataan Memorial Death March salute as the National Anthem plays during opening ceremonies (U.S. Army Reserve photos by Staff Sgt. Ken Scar)

He walked eight and a half miles through the unforgiving New Mexico desert, with temperatures reaching 90 degrees, and refused to stop until he matched his distance from the previous nine years. Skardon is a Clemson institution in and of himself so Clemson orange was the color of choice for the 64 members of “Ben’s Brigade” — his die-hard support group made up of friends, family, former Clemson University students of his, and relatives of his fellow prisoners of war — who accompanied him. The swarm of orange T-shirts was only given competition as Skardon crossed through several bright yellow fields of blooming California poppies between the four and six-mile markers.

Skardon stopped at each mile marker to address his Brigade, usually with a joke or the cry “Oosh!” which is the command he says his Japanese captors gave to keep moving.

As the temperature rose, members of Ben’s Brigade took turns holding an American flag at angles that would shade him. He moved at his normal pace of two miles an hour, but stopped to rest or talk to people several times between each mile marker – something he hadn’t done in years past. Spirits rose as they reached one mile marker after another, but there was concern he might not make it the whole way this year. He had just recovered from a bout of the flu weeks earlier, and the temperatures were ten degrees hotter than in previous years. It would take nothing away from him if he couldn’t go his traditional 8.5 miles again – if he only walked a mile it would still be an astounding feat – but nobody could question the power of his will either. He never mentioned quitting.

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Retired U.S. Army Col. Ben Skardon, a survivor of the Bataan Death March, speaks to members of “Ben’s Brigade” – a group of friends, family, former Clemson University students of his, and relatives of his fellow prisoners of war who accompany him.

At mile marker six, he left the road to sit on a folding chair and rest in the shade of one of the support tents. The members of Ben’s Brigade, themselves sweaty and tired at this point, gratefully accepted water and gatorade from the volunteers who had waited for them. Somebody put a wet handkerchief around Skardon’s neck and handed him an orange slice to suck on. The two Army medics assigned to him took his vitals and suggested maybe he should take it easy on himself this year.

“Four minutes,” he said.

Four minutes later, he stood up and walked on.

At mile marker eight, Ben’s Brigade gathered around him one more time.

“Our destiny is right here,” he told them. “What I want to say is thank you, and if I haven’t already shaken hands with you, please shake my hand after this. I can’t tell you, personally, how much this has meant to me, especially the new people who come out here for 8.5 miles. A few of you still go out and do more and that’s more power to you – [but] the power in my feet has gone! I have two very stalwart gentleman [the Army medics] who are actually dragging me through to the finish line. It touches me every time I look around and see you. So, goodbye to a lot of you. This is the last point we’ll all be together today. Once we get to the finish line, they take me to an air conditioned tent. You’ll all have to sweat it out!”

Image: Retired U.S. Army Col. Ben Skardon, a survivor of the Bataan Death March, gets a kiss from Ulli Dunn, a volunteer for the Bataan Memorial Death March at White Sands Missile Range, before Skardon gave a speech to a standing-room only crowd, March 18, 2017. (U.S. Army Reserve photo by Staff Sgt. Ken Scar)

Skardon gets a kiss from Ulli Dunn, a volunteer for the Bataan Memorial Death March.

At that point nobody in Ben’s Brigade doubted he would reach his goal of 8.5 miles again. They weren’t wrong. He crossed the finish line less fifteen minutes later.

The Bataan Memorial Death March honors a special group of World War II heroes responsible for the defense of the islands of Luzon, Corregidor and the harbor defense forts of the Philippines. On April 9, 1942, tens of thousands of American and Filipino Soldiers were forced to surrender to Japanese forces. The Americans were Army, Army Air Corps, Navy and Marines. Among those seized were large numbers of the 200th Coast Artillery, New Mexico National Guard — the reason the memorial march is held in New Mexico.

Often overlooked are the four months of fierce fighting that took place before the American and Filipino forces surrendered. For instance, Skardon earned two Silver Stars and four Bronze stars during that short time span.

This was Skardon’s 10th time walking in the march, which he considers a personal pilgrimage. He says it’s his sacred responsibility to attend every year and walk with the thousands of others who come to honor his brothers-in-arms who didn’t survive the real Bataan Death March or the years of confinement in prisoner of war camps that followed.

“Coming here is an obligation,” he said. “I ought to do something, and the best way I know, physically, is to walk every time I get a chance in their memory.”

He says nothing he does now, even at 99, can compare to the ultimate sacrifice his brothers-in-arms who didn’t return from the war gave.

“The word ‘hero’ does not apply to me at all,” he insists, quoting the Bible verse John 15:13: “Greater love has no man than this, than to lay down his life for his friends.”


Image of Ken ScarKen Scar joined the Army in 2009 at the age of 40 after spending nearly twenty years as a scenic artist in theater and television. He completed a one-year tour of duty in Afghanistan in 2012 and was named the 2013 Keith L. Ware U.S. Military Journalist of the Year. He currently works as a public information director at Clemson University and serves in the Army Reserve.

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Comments

  1. maryellen snell    

    iand family members would like to walk in the next march. who do we contact? my uncle is a survivor of the Death March and was a POW.

    1. Wally Messer    

      God bless this gentleman and thanks for your sacrifice and service. My business partner’s grandfather, Major Harry Fleeger, also survived The March and was held prisoner by the Japanese on the Philippines until their attempt to transport him and other prisoners to Formosa when the Japanese transport ship they were on was sunk by an American submarine. To my knowledge his body was never recovered.

  2. Gabriela Cope, USA RETIRED    

    I salute you Sir and all of your comrades! Thank you!

  3. Reed Webber    

    And it probably still wasn’t as hard on him as the original Death March! What a man! Hooah!

  4. Tom Bowe    

    Our city had one of the survivors for a few years after the march, his name was Sam Goldy.. I remind the citizens of Gloucester City, NJ every other year, in various ways, so they never forget. – Tom Bowe

  5. Barbara Williams Eaglin    

    My father, Cecil Howard Williams, was a survivor of The Bataan Death March and this is the first I have heard about this. He has been dead for several years. He was a prisoner for 3 years ? Days. I was his only child. Keep me notified on up and coming events.

  6. Chuck Wallace    

    I worked for several years with a death March survivor, Harry Pinto. He rose to Assistant Assessor at Santa Clara County in California. Wonderful Mann

  7. Harrison P. Barton    

    My mothers brother was one of the non-survivors of the Death March. His close friend and comrade did survive and was unofficially adopted by my Grandmother and her family as one of her sons. As a Navy Seabee of the Viet Nam and after era, I salute Col Skardon and his contributions to his service, his college and those who served with him. He is a hero!
    Harrison P. Barton

  8. Mike Downs    

    You sir are an inspiration. Thank you for all your sacrifice and for all you do. Salute

  9. John Lemon    

    When I was a Boy Scout and Air Force Brat living at Clark AB, Philippines, we participated in a re-enactment of the Bataan Death March. I was involved twice, 1965 and 1966. By 1967 it had grown so big that we had a camporee to re-enact the Death March. We hiked the some 50 some miles from Mariveles to San Fernando Railway Station. We cleaned markers that lines the route. We heard speeches from survivors of the march who came told us some of their stories. We had Filipino politicians like then-President Marcos come to tell us how much they appreciated how the Americans helped them win the war in their country. People would line the roads and pass out fruit and drinks to us as we passed. For the camporee the Boy Scouts of the Philippines and Taiwan were also invited to participate. The Taiwan scouts gave us a display of Tai-Chi and the Filipinos showed who to build a Nipa hut. Since we were at the San Miguel Naval Station sailors from the US Navy showed us how to build a rope bridge and worked with on all of our knots. It was fun time but for me it was another lesson from history that I have never forgotten. Later when I was dating I learned that my girlfriend’s dad at the time, who also had taught me in 5th grade had been a survivor of the Death March. He spent the war in a POW Camp in Japan. He used to tell me stories. One of the things that made an impression on me was that he held no grudges against his captors. He said, he even learned to speak Japanese because of his experience.

  10. Jim Burke    

    A personification of the word “HONOR”.
    Semper Fidelis, Jim Burke LTCOL USMC (ret) VN/Desert Storm

  11. Arthur Alarcon    

    What a remarkable man. A true American in this day and so very glad he is still showing the country what is means to have the correct view of Duty,. Honor,. Country.
    God Bless Ben Skardon and Ben’s Brigade.

  12. Samuel E Grashio    

    Sir,My father, Samuel C Grashio, was also a Bataan Death March survivor. After a year of confinement as a POW he and nine other U S servicemen escaped from Davao prison camp and eventually made their way to Australia. It was their reports to General MacArthur that first informed our government of the inhumane treatment you prisoners were receiving. God Bless you. You are an inspiration to us all and in my father’s words; “You are a TRUE American.”
    Respectively,
    Samuel E Grashio

  13. Victor C. Bond    

    Sure wish I knew about. It for I would have been there. Now 94, a Marine veteran of the South Pacific, WWII, I’m not sure if I could handle more than 4-5 miles tho’

  14. SGM ret James R Brooks    

    This is beautiful the rememberence of those who gave so much. I was looking to see if Lewis Hazel was there he was a instructor at Hunter Army Aifield Savamnah,Ga in 69 would hVe been in 90’s he was a survior of the batan march

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