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by Tumbleweed Smith

In April of 1942 more than 75,000 American and Philippine military personnel were captured by the Japanese on the island of Bataan and forced to march 68 miles to a prison camp. Thousands died from beatings and starvation. Survivors faced the horrors of a Japanese POW camp.

“The first unit to be captured on the island was the National Guard from New Mexico,” says Barbara Simpson of Gatesville. “So every year members of that group or their descendants hold a memorial to the Bataan Death March. It is an awesome experience. The early morning pre-dawn ceremony, when they call the roll of the survivors, is the most patriotic experience that I have ever had.”

Barbara has made the memorial march five times.

“It takes place on the White Sands Missile Range near Las Cruces. It used to be just a 26 mile march, but in recent years they’ve added a 15 mile march to accommodate those who don’t want to do the whole 26 miles.”

This year the march takes place on Sunday, March 30. Last year more than 4,000 people participated. Some did it as a test of endurance, others as an active history lesson.

“Lined up in front of me last year were double amputees from the Iraqi war. Many of those completed the entire 26 mile march.” The course is a trail through the mountains with elevations over a mile high.

“It starts out on a nice level pavement, but the trail quickly turns to dirt. It is a missile range. It’s open country. Part of the course is directly uphill and when you finish that part, you think you’re there, but then you find another hill to climb. But around one of these dusty trails they position some of the survivors. And about the time you think you can’t do this anymore, you stop and visit with the survivors and you realize that if they did what they did, the least you can do is complete the course.”

If people making the march get tired and desire to leave the march, they can get a jeep ride back to the starting point.

“Those survivors are writing books and telling their stories. Their children and grandchildren are along the path. If you go out there to do this and you want to do it in a hurry, you’re going to miss what it’s for.”

The march has been going on since 1989. It was started by the ROTC Department at New Mexico State University. Registration (before March 23) is 50 dollars for individuals, 200 dollars for teams. The website is www.bataanmarch.com.

Barbara, who is the county clerk of Coryell County, finished the course in 11 hours last year. Her daughter accompanied her. During the walk, he daughter talked by phone to her husband, who is serving in Iraq.

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