Airmen participate in Bataan Memorial Death March

  • Published
  • By Team Esperanza members
  • Bataan Death March participants
Editor's Note: The following commentary was written by 2nd Lts. Felisa and Peter Dyrud, area Air Force Institute of Technology students; 2nd Lt. Joshua Neustrom, 551st Electronic Systems Wing; and Angela Lagdameo, Harvard University student. 

We were racing through the Newark, N.J., airport and praying for a miracle on the evening of March 23. Our connecting flight to Albuquerque, N.M., was scheduled to take off immediately in another terminal, but we weren't about to give up. 

A series of miraculous events, which included one team member's calf injury from the previous week healing overnight, had brought us to this point. We were on our way to run what some call the toughest marathon in the U.S. -- the Bataan Memorial Death March. 

Three of us made it just before the airplane doors closed; we stood in the sleeve rooting for our last teammate, who finally arrived out of breath, in flip-flops with a rolling suitcase. It was a good warm-up for the race. 

From the instant we decided, "Let's do it!" in the comfort of our living room, to the overwhelming moment of crossing the finish line, we were a team. 

Though we had registered for the race as individual competitors, the months of training together in the Boston snow bonded us together as friends and teammates.Numerous relatives also traveled from Maryland and Arizona to cheer us on, wearing our neon green team T-shirts, which stood out in a sea of Battle Dress Uniforms. 

The Bataan Memorial Death March is no ordinary race. The race's full marathon-length course is said to have been designed by the devil himself, with its seemingly everlasting hill between miles 8 and 13 and a trek through the infamous "Sand Pit" from miles 20 to 22. 

Regardless of its legendary difficulty, more than 4,000 military and civilian marchers showed up to brave the hills, sand and New Mexico sun. The competitors carried either a 35-pound pack in the heavy category, or a water container in the light division, throughout the contest. 

The race is unique for more than its miseries. It commemorates the harrowing experience of often unsung heroes -- the 75,000 Filipino and American soldiers who either endured or gave their lives in the original Bataan Death March in 1942. Our team participated in order to feel a small portion of their pain, to press beyond our physical limits by seeking greater strength than our own, and especially to ensure that both the survivors and those who never returned are not forgotten. 

Bataan was a strategic peninsula for the defense of the Philippines against the Japanese invasion in World War II. In the 1942 battle for Bataan, the Allied Soldiers were outnumbered three to one and still held out for 98 days with meager supplies and little hope of reinforcements. Maj. Gen. Edward P. King finally ordered their surrender and incorrectly assumed that the rules of the Geneva Convention would be upheld. Instead, the Soldiers were "evacuated" by means of a dire march to Camp O'Donnell 90 miles away, given little to no food or water, and subjected to various brutalities. Those who fell behind were shot, beheaded or bayoneted, according to event speakers. 

The 56,000 who survived encountered the ruthless conditions at Camp O'Donnell where they were starved, beaten, made to work under intolerable conditions and killed at will. To many, recalled survivor Evans Ramirez Garcia, 93, "death seemed sweeter than life." Garcia himself was placed in front of a firing squad and anticipated the worst. However, he suddenly saw his mother's face and lost all fear. Hands tied, he refused to be blindfolded, saying, "I want to be able to see. I want the whole world to see that it takes eight Japanese to kill one American." He found out later his mother had felt urgently that she should pray for him at exactly that time. Miraculously, his life was spared. 

Nine of the remaining survivors, including Mr. Garcia, attended the Memorial March on March 25. They shared their stories, shook the hands of each racer who crossed the starting line, and were honored at pre- and post-race ceremonies. 

Although our situation during the race was not nearly as desperate as that of the Bataan veterans, we saw the same courageous spirit at work in our contest. 

Trailed by an ambulance and held up by teammates through a bout of heat exhaustion, Lieutenant Felisa Dyrud finished first in the female military heavy category. She ran the 26.2 miles in 6 hours, 15 minutes. 

This victory was not hers alone, however, it belonged to our team, named Esperanza, which means "hope" in Spanish, and our common source of strength. 

Both Lieutenants Neustrom and Peter Dyrud placed in the top 12 percent of male military heavy racers. Miss Lagdameo also finished well.