The jungles of the Bataan Peninsula in the Philippine Islands are a long way from the U.S. Army’s White Sands Missile Range in the northern reaches of the Chihuahuan Desert in southern New Mexico. Yet there is a strong connection between the two.
Just prior to World War II units from the New Mexico National Guard were deployed to the Philippines. After Pearl Harbor they were in the middle of the battles fought in the Philippines and were eventually part of the infamous Bataan Death March.
To honor their sacrifice and the sacrifice of all those who have suffered in war, the U.S. Army base at White Sand Missile Range has hosted the Bataan Memorial Death March for the past 24 years. The road leading to the base (U.S. 70) is now called the Bataan Death March Highway.
The Bataan Memorial Death March is a full 26.2 mile marathon. Most of the participants march or walk the route rather than run it. I had the privilege of marching in it this past weekend.
This year’s march had over 5600 participants. Most were in uniform and were from all branches of the service. Some were even from foreign countries. For those not in the military it is a tremendous opportunity to intermingle with those who serve. You will find that our military is composed of a select group of very friendly and amazing young men and women.
If you would like to include the Bataan Memorial Death March among your walking experiences, you can learn more at http://www.bataanmarch.com/. In the meantime if you would like to see what the march is like, here are some pictures and impressions from this year’s march.
When you enter the base, you can visit the missile park and see some of the missiles that have been tested at the range. There is even a restored German V-2 from World War II. The range was started by the Army at the end of World War II to test and further develop V-2 missiles captured from the Germans. Several German scientists, including Werner Von Braun, were brought to White Sands to launch the United States missile program. Their work evenyually lead to the space program.
The base has a stunning setting at the foot of the Organ Mountains. Las Cruces, New Mexico is on the other side of the mountains.
If you don’t want to spring for the cost of a motel room in nearby Las Cruces or Alamogordo, you can sleep for free on the floor of the gym at the base. By the time the lights were turned out at 9pm, the floor was packed.
The reason for the early lights out is that the march organizers want marchers to start gathering while it is still dark to be ready for the opening ceremonies which begin at 6:30am.
The ceremonies which include an introduction of Bataan survivors in attendance, a roll call of survivors who have passed away since the last march, and flyovers conclude just as the sun begins to rise at around 7:15am.
Afetr the ceremonies the marchers proceed to the starting line for the 7:30am start.
As you step out, you have the opportunity meet the Bataan survivors. This year there were only three attending the march. When I did the march four years ago there were many more in attendence. With the survivors now all in their 90s, you better plan on attending a march soon if you would like to meet one.
The march begins on paved streets on the base.
You’ll soon leave the pavement and start marching through the Chihuahuan Desert.
You’ll also be walking with many wounded warriors. Whatever discomfort you might encounter during the march can’t even come close to what the Bataan survivors or the wounded warriors have encounterd.
As you walk through the desert you’ll pass through typical Chihuahuan Desert landscape and flora such as this thicket of mequite. Don’t even think of taking a short cut through the mesquite; the thorns will cut you to shreds.
You’ll see plenty of yucca along the way.
And also plenty of creosote bush
And even some Mormon tea.
But most of all you’ll be marching.
But you’ll also be making progress. At the seven mile marker, you have less than twenty miles to go.
You’ll pass the remains of several old ranch operations as you march. The White Sands Missile Range was cobbled together by buying up several ranches and combining them with public land and land already acquired by the military during World War II for bombing ranges and training areas. The first atomic bomb was exploded at the Trinity Site on land that is now part of White Sands Missile Range.
As you keep going through impressive desert landscape, you will keep making progress
And at the thirteen mile marker you will almost be half way home.
Remains of another ranch.
There are water stops every two miles or so along the route. This one even had hamburgers and hot dogs for sale.
Less than ten miles to go!
You’ll even see several old mine operations along the route. This area had a white quartz seam in the rock.
Coming into the home stretch with just a bit more than five miles to go. By this time the wind had picked up and everyone was looking forward to finishing the march.
Those are the Organ Mountains up ahead.
So close but still over two miles to go.
You can almost see the finish line now, or at least the general vicinity of the finish line.
Finally! Only two tenths of a mile to go and what a great march. Hard but well worth the effort.