The resounding boom of cannon fire broke the sound of thousands of participants talking as they waited in anticipation March 29 for the start of the 2009 Bataan Memorial Death March.
This year, the 26.2-mile event at White Sands Missile Range, N.M., included more than 5,300 participants from 50 states and eight countries, including the Philippines, Germany, Canada and the United Kingdom.
While individuals marched for their own reasons, they all came together for the same purpose: to honor the soldiers, who were part of the Bataan Death March during World War II.
The Bataan Death March occurred in 1942 after the Japanese attacked the Bataan peninsula in the Philippines, where American and Filipino soldiers were stationed. After three months of fighting the Japanese with insufficient weapons and dwindling supplies, the American and Filipino soldiers were ordered to surrender April 9, 1942.
The Japanese forced the soldiers to march more than 60 miles with nearly no food or water. The prisoners were subjected to heinous acts of torture and many were killed or perished while marching. Some of the soldiers who survived the march spent the next three years in Japanese prisoner of war camps until freed in 1945.
The opening ceremony for the march included a roll call of the New Mexico National Guard survivors, who were members of the 200th and 515th Coast Artillery units.
One by one, the names of those living and deceased were called out as a reminder of what's called America's "Greatest Generation."
Some of the Bataan survivors lined up along the starting line and shook hands with the racers as a show of gratitude to those who were marching in their honor.
Young and old marched side by side on the rugged terrain with runners, military personnel carrying rucksacks weighing at least 35 pounds, and wounded warriors marching on prosthetic limbs.
Each participant was determined to finish the march and could be heard inspiring others no matter how much their body ached and feet hurt.
Tabitha Baker recalled the moment she crossed the finish line. "The proudest moment was ... seeing the survivors waiting there to commemorate the participants for completing the march. As I shook the survivor's hand I said, 'It is an honor to meet you.' He looked at me, held my hand and answered, 'No, it is an honor to meet you.'
"It is amazing to see these men ... have so much pride and admiration for the soldiers of today."
As each year passes, there are fewer living Bataan veterans, but the responsibility to keep the memory alive will never perish.
(author Army Staff Sgt. Anna Doo serves with the New Mexico National Guard.)
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