Meeting Bataan survivors taught me about history, God and service

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Carolyn Herrick
  • 49th Wing Public Affairs
On March 25, I had the opportunity to volunteer at the 23rd annual Bataan Memorial Death March, a marathon at White Sands Missile Range, N.M., that honors those who endured the famous 66-mile death march in 1942.

There were more than 1,000 volunteers on the course that day, but my husband and I had the privilege of volunteering as escorts for the 16 survivors in attendance. I spent the day in the company of 16 heroes, and although a casual observer may have thought I was the one helping them, without knowing it, they were helping me.

I saw those old men, decked out proudly with medals on their shirts and hats, struggle to rise during the playing of the national anthem. They shook almost 7,000 hands of those who were beginning and finishing the race, disregarding the arthritic pain it caused them, because the marathoners were running in their honor. They didn't mind the sweat, the salt, and the dirt that was on the hands of the men and women who had just completed the grueling course, which ranged in elevation from 4,000 to 5,500 feet, in 85-degree weather. They were just glad to see a younger generation memorializing an event that meant so much in their lives and in American history.

When I asked them how they got through the death march 70 years ago, each had a different answer.

"Hatred," said one.

"The grace of God," said another.

They talked about hiding rations in their long beards; watching 50 men be shot, execution-style, in one fell swoop; and carrying 100 kilos (220 pounds) of rice into and off of Japanese ships, when they weighed only 85 pounds themselves.

"I don't think I'd have survived the Bataan," I told one man. "I'd have probably given up and taken a bullet, glad to be put out of my misery, rather than endure what you endured."

He smiled, and said, "You just do what you have to do," speaking of the enduring spirit of man and the deep down will to survive that most of us never have to tap into.

These men don't think of themselves as heroes. They attend the memorial every year and speak nationally about their experiences, not to exploit themselves but to make sure that history is never forgotten. Some share their faith, which was their only source of comfort and hope in those long years as prisoners of war. Their pride in service is evident when they pay tribute to our flag, disregarding pain and physical handicap to rise and salute.

I learned more about history and geography in 10 hours with 16 personal historians within an arm's length than I have in the last 28 years of my life, combined. I may have been helping them in and out of vehicles and running to get water and food, but they were the ones who helped me that day. They taught me about history, God and service, and their legacy will live on in my heart and have a special place in my life forever.