WHITE SANDS MISSILE RANGE, New Mexico — The start of the annual Bataan Memorial Death March is a raucous affair. The sound of cannon fire sends 7,000 hard-charging and motivated athletes surging across the starting line into the New Mexican desert under a vibrant orange and violet sunrise. They whoop and cheer as they embark on one of the most grueling sporting events in America.
Their ranks include wounded warriors, active duty service members, veterans, professional athletes — and last year even a team of circus performers. A large crowd of onlookers tirelessly cheers them on. The cannons fire again and again.
As the footsteps of the last starter recede into the distance, a final participant unlike all the others slowly approaches the line in the settling dust. Wearing comfortable dress shoes, slacks and a button-up dress shirt under his bright orange Clemson University windbreaker, he always receives the loudest cheers of all.
This is retired U.S. Army Col. Ben Skardon, the only survivor of the real Bataan Death March during World War II who walks in the event.
On Sunday, March 19, he will walk in the march for the 10th time, just four months short of his 100th birthday. He aims to walk eight and a half miles.
Skardon is an alumnus of Clemson University, which he attended as a cadet from 1935 to 1938 when it was an all-male military school. He returned to Clemson after the war and became an English professor, was named an Alumni Master Teacher in 1977 and taught until his retirement in 1985. It was just another beginning for him.
It would be 22 years before he made the pilgrimage from his home in Clemson to White Sands Missile Range to attend his first memorial march in 2007. At that event, he spontaneously decided he didn’t want to just sit and watch with the other honored survivors — he wanted to walk. So he waited until the last participant was off and running and he started walking, just to see how far he could go. The rest is history.
He walks — methodically and as steady as a desert tortoise — across the desolate, sandy terrain to honor his brothers-in-arms who did not return home from the war. It is the continuation of a journey that began 74 years ago in the dank jungles of the Philippines.
“This is now my pilgrimage,” he said. “Coming here is like going to Mecca; it’s a shrine. I learned how easy it is to die when you lose the will to live.”
The story of the Bataan Death March began April 9, 1942, when about 75,000 Filipino and U.S. soldiers were surrendered to Japanese forces. The infamous 50-80 mile march was characterized by wide-ranging physical abuse and murder. It resulted in death inflicted upon prisoners and civilians alike by the Japanese Army and was later judged by an Allied military commission to be a war crime.
Mostly forgotten is the four months of fierce fighting that preceded it. Battles began immediately after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and were fought in a region plagued by malaria. Allied forces were hampered by outdated equipment and nearly no air power. They survived on quarter rations and received no medical help.
In that short timespan, Skardon, a newly minted captain, led Company A of the 92nd Infantry Regiment PA (Philippine Army), a battalion of Filipino Army recruits on the Bataan Peninsula. He earned two Silver Stars and four Bronze Stars for valor.
When the Allied forces finally had to surrender, things turned from bad to worse for Skardon and his comrades. Three quarters of a century later, he still vividly recalls what it was like.
“The Japanese told us we were captives, not prisoners of war, and they’d treat us any way they wanted to,” he said. “So we were treated like animals — worse than animals.”
They were forced to march approximately 60 miles north to Camp O’Donnell, a prison camp, in the scorching heat through the Philippine jungles. Between 5,000 and 11,000 did not survive. Those that did were rewarded with years of horror in Japanese prison camps until they were either rescued or died.
Skardon survived for more than three years in the camps, despite becoming deathly ill with malaria, beriberi, diarrhea and other ailments. Two fellow Clemson alumni, Henry Leitner and Otis Morgan, kept him alive by spoon-feeding him and eventually trading his gold Clemson ring — which he had managed to keep hidden — for food.
Incredibly, Skardon also survived the sinking of two unmarked Japanese transport ships carrying him and other POWs to mainland Japan, including the infamous sinking of the Oryoku Maru. Morgan was killed during the bombing of that ship and Leitner died in a POW camp in 1945.
Skardon eventually ended up in a prison camp in Manchuria, where Russian units freed him in August 1945. He was 24 years old and weighed 90 pounds.
Remarkably, his service to the United States did not end there. He served in Korea in 1951-52, and retired from the Army with the rank of colonel in 1962.
Back on the hot and dusty plains of White Sands, Skardon is greeted by enthusiastic groups of admirers at every checkpoint. His pace is hard to believe for a man approaching life’s century milestone — every 30 minutes he covers another mile.
“I have so much respect, admiration and love for this man,” said Cheryl Fallstead, a New Mexico writer and editor and proud member of Ben’s Brigade, the loyal group of supporters who walk with him every year. It includes many of his former students and Clemson alumni.
Fallstead became a charter member of the group after tracking Skardon down for an article following his first march in 2007. “He has endured so much, but didn’t let the unimaginable things he survived ruin his life,” she said. “And now here he is, marching over eight miles! He inspires me and makes me want to be a better person.”
The 25 members of Ben’s Brigade take turns holding him steady and keeping his spirits high by cracking jokes and singing the Clemson fight song. After about two miles the route veers off of pavement and onto a dirt road that cuts straight through the sand and creosote-covered plains for several miles. It’s on this stretch that the group settles down a bit and Skardon becomes quiet.
“I get focused. I even think of things I haven’t thought about in years, [but] it’s not a time for meditation. I don’t try to think of all the ramifications,” he explained. “My debt to Henry Leitner and Otis Morgan is heavy. It cannot be repaid. People ask me, ‘How can you account for being alive when your best friends are dead?’ I say, ‘I can’t.’”
Skardon walked the 8.5 miles in his best time ever last year: 4 hours, 2 minutes.
“Clearly, he is not getting older, only better,” said David Stalnaker, a former student of Skardon’s who has walked with him in the march every year but one. “He reduced his time by 29 minutes and looked like he could have gone on for several more miles. I can’t wait to see if he posts a sub-four-hour-time this year.”
Skardon says that as long as he’s able, he will keep making his pilgrimage to the desert each year. It’s his sacred responsibility.
How many more years he’ll be able to do it is anybody’s guess.
“I’m not going for anything except as far as I can,” he said.