Unusual Marathon Honors Memory of WWII Troops

It’s nothing like you’d expect at a normal springtime endurance distance event. For one thing, it takes place on a military base known for its secrecy and defense testing, just a few miles from where the first atomic bomb was detonated as part of the Manhattan Project on July 16, 1945.

In late March, nearly 6,000 participants from around the world — including many current and former military — came to southern New Mexico to participate in the 26th annual Bataan Memorial Death March held at White Sands Missile Range. The memorial event is a challenging trek through high desert and mountain terrain. They marched the Green route, which is the full 26.2 miles, or the Blue honorary route, which is 14.2 miles.

And many current military participants add to the challenge by wearing full gear and packs.

On April 9, 1942, approximately 76,000 American and Filipino soldiers surrendered to Japanese forces after fighting from an untenable position on the island of Luzon in the Philippines.

In late March, nearly 6,000 participants memorialized the  Bataan Memorial Death March in New Mexico.
In late March, nearly 6,000 people participated in the Bataan Memorial Death March in New Mexico.

As prisoners, American troops comprised of Army, Army Air Corps, Navy, and Marines were forced to make a grueling 60-mile march to prisoner-of-war camps. During the march, Japanese butchery, disease, exposure to the blazing sun, and lack of food and water took the lives of approximately 5,200 Americans. When three officers escaped a year later, the world learned of the unspeakable atrocities suffered along the journey that subsequently became known as the Bataan Death March.

Among those seized were 1,800 members of the 200th Coast Artillery, New Mexico National Guard, many representing entire communities in the state. Only 900 returned home after the war. As a result, memories of the Bataan Death March loom large in New Mexico history.

The Army ROTC Department at New Mexico State University began sponsoring the memorial march in 1989 to mark a page in history that included so many native sons and affected many families in the state. In 1992, White Sands Missile Range and the New Mexico National Guard joined in the sponsorship and the event was moved to the Missile Range.

“This memorial march pays tribute to the bravery, heroism and sacrifice of those who defended Luzon, Corregidor and harbor defense forts of the Philippines in 1942 during World War II,” Brig. Gen. Timothy R. Coffin, U.S. Army White Sands Missile Range commanding general said to those participating in the March 22 memorial event.

“The legacy of the march, which has brought us here today, keeps its history alive and ensures the sacrifices made and lessons learned are not forgotten,” said Coffin. “Of the approximate 1,800 men from New Mexico’s 200th and 515th coastal artillery regiments, that were deployed to the Philippines in 1941, only 900 returned back to the United States at the end of the war. Bataan took a heavy toll on the state of New Mexico.”


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