Most people would never consider paying money to go for a walk, let alone a march. Soldiers from the 11th Signal Brigade and others did exactly that at this year’s Bataan Memorial Death March at White Sands Missile Range, or WSMR, N.M. on Sunday. There, they marched to remember Soldiers who survived or died in the Philippine Islands at the hands of the Japanese during World War II.
The Bataan Memorial Death March is a grueling 26.2 mile course in which participants must traverse through thick sand, unforgiving hills and the brutal heat and wind of the WSMR.
This annual event is held to honor American and Filipino prisoners of war, or POWs, who were forced to relocate by the Imperial Japanese Army after the intense three-month-long battle of Bataan. The movement began on April 9, 1942. The route was harsh; the prisoners had little to no food or supplies and were forced to bury their dead. By the time they reached their destination, Camp O’Donnell, the casualty toll was nearly 10,000 POWs.
All elements from the 11th Signal Brigade were present for the march. The 11th Sig. Bde., Headquarters and Headquarters Company, and the 40th Expeditionary Signal Battalion participants traveled from Fort Huachuca. The 86th ESB participants traveled from Fort Bliss, Texas, and the 62nd ESB and 57th ESB participants traveled from Fort Hood, Texas.
Participants could complete either the 14.2-mile course or the full 26.2-mile course with or without a 35-pound pack.
Staff Sgt. Kevin Giger, 11th Sig. Bde. HHC, a native of Sacramento, Calif., said this was the second Bataan Memorial Death March he has completed.
“This is a grueling event, both physically and mentally, but it is for a great cause which honors those who actually took part in the real Bataan Death March,” said Giger.
Giger was part of the 11th Sig. Bde. HHC’s heavy team. The team of five each had to carry a pack weighing more than 35 pounds and finish within 20 seconds of one another.
The team began preparations for the event three months ago, marching at least three times a week including Saturdays, Giger explained.
“The buildup of pain and stress gives you a tremendous amount of relief once you cross that finish line. I did this event again because I like the struggle of a course [of this length]. I love finishing with a team, and it is great to meet the survivors who can attend,” said Giger.
Maj. James Hepworth, a native of Katanning, Western Australia, was also on the team. Hepworth is in the Australian Army but is assigned to the 11th Sig. Bde. as the officer-in-charge of engineering.
“Being part of the 11th Signal Brigade team was a great feeling and being able to be a part of such a unique event with the U.S. military was a real privilege,” said Hepworth. “Australia also suffered the horrors of POW camps in World War II in the same region, most notable at Changi Prison, Singapore, on the Thai-Burma railway and at the Sandakan Death Marches.
“This part of history has huge significance for Australia, and it is important to mark the strength of our alliance in our shared military history,” he added.
According to Hepworth, the opening roll call of Bataan survivors was the most emotional part of the experience.
“Being able to shake the hands of the survivors and to hear the roll call with Soldiers present saying, ‘here,’ and marking silence for the Soldiers who did not make it home was very powerful to me,” he said.
The team took approximately eight hours and 15 minutes to complete the 26.2-mile course, but it was not about time, according to Hepworth.
“I did this to bond with my teammates, to be part of something worthwhile, to attempt a challenge we were not sure we could do and to mark an important part of history and the sacrifice of Soldiers who have given us the freedom we enjoy today,” said Hepworth.
Those feeling up to the challenge of completing this honorary event should mark their calendars. The next march is slated for March 23, 2014.