For the Boys

Memorial March 1998

Memorial March 2001

BCMFofNM, Inc.

Dear Family and Friends,

 

As you may know, Donald has made the Bataan Memorial Death March at White Sands twice, first in 1998, and again last year. While discussing this year’s upcoming march a few days prior, I expressed my concern that some of the veterans I know may not be with us too many years more. Since it was more than likely that I would never make the time to train for the march, I asked Donald if he would take me. Could I make it? Would it be too much for him? And there you go; this year Donald had not only the elements to contend with, but ME as well!

 

We arrived at the range on Saturday, March 31st, and had begun the registration process when we were told that the last viewing of the film presentation at the theater was about to take place. Arriving at the theater, we were told the film was delayed twenty minutes, so we went next door where the veterans give their presentations. Walking by one of the rooms, I spotted Mr. Earl Harris of Albuquerque. A good friend of his family, an adopted daughter so-to-speak, was there with her son’s girlfriend. The two women were going to make the march, and were wearing T-shirts that said, “Marching in Memory of Earl Harris.” I told the daughter that my first first-hand account of the Bataan Death March came from Mr. Harris and Mr. Leo Padilla. I told Mr. Harris that I would be thinking of him and Mr. Padilla on the march.

 

On our way to see the film we met Mr. Manuel Armijo of Santa Fe. As I recounted the last time I saw he and his wife to Mr. Armijo, I saw that he was reading Donald’s ball cap. The ball cap has stitched into it, Carlos’ name and rank, battery, and place of death. I had spoken to Mr. Armijo a couple of years ago about Carlos’ death in Cabanatuan prison camp, but Donald had never met him before, and knowing the story was coming, I moved over and began talking to another gentleman.

 

Since Carlos was an Armijo too, and since prisoners were laid out in alphabetical order when they were taken to “zero ward”, Carlos and Mr. Armijo were laying next to each other when Carlos succumbed to disease. A toe tag was placed on Carlos’ foot with the name “Manuel Armijo.” Mr. Armijo, although close to death himself, caught the error. Following the war, Mr. Armijo took an American flag to Carlos’ father, a judge in Las Vegas, New Mexico, and detailed the facts surrounding his son’s death. The Judge displayed the flag in his office until he retired, and remained bitter the rest of his life at the loss of his son.

 

It is a miracle Mr. Armijo survived. Prisoners who were taken to “zero ward” were taken there to die; they had a zero chance of survival.

 

Following the film presentation, Donald and I finished registering for the march. We were told that pictures would be taken of the marchers at mile 13, the halfway point, and at the finish line, and if we signed their sheet the pictures would be E-mailed to us. Cool! After that, we were off to Las Cruces to check into our hotel.

 

Virgil Aimes
Jack Aldrich

On Sunday morning we got stuck in traffic on the base. There was a long line of cars trying to park, and we ended up at least a mile away from the staging area. I had a VIP invitation to attend both the opening and closing ceremonies, but by the time we got there the opening ceremonies were over. We could hear the bugler blowing “Taps” as we were coming up the road from the parking lot. We met Mr. and Mrs. Virgil Aimes who had also gotten caught in the traffic snarl.

 

We went in the Frontier Lounge and found Mrs. Harris. I asked for her blessings and good thoughts before we took off, and these she was most glad to give us. We then went outside and joined the other 3,000+ marchers and waited for the gun to sound the start. Donald told me not to get caught up in the enthusiasm and to let people pass.

 

Just after the start, we came upon the veterans who were lined up on either side of the street shaking hands. We had seen Mr. Virgil Aimes of Albuquerque earlier, and he again wished us good luck. Mr. Jack Aldrich of Roswell kissed me and reminded me of how we “saved” their lives the year before, and said he would be looking for us again on the road. He and his wife, author Dorothy Cave, had broken down along the highway, and we happened upon them. We followed them into Alamogordo after Donald got their car going again. Mr. Banegas of Las Cruces told us Mr. Ruben Flores, also of Las Cruces, had just gotten out of intensive care following heart surgery, and to find him after the march and we would talk. So there you go, we began with the veterans good wishes!

 

Just down the road a short way after the start, a group of marchers passed us. I heard a distinct voice, and said to Donald, “That sounds like Judge Pineda.” Donald yelled out, “How’s it going Judge!” Sure enough, it was Judge Pineda of Roswell, and the two of them exchanged a few niceties. Judge Pineda and his fellow marchers were moving at a good clip and we never saw them again.

 

Soon after, I took a picture of two Boy Scouts from El Paso, one who was making the march for the 3rd time at age 14!

 

Donald was all business you know... concentrating... focused. Then there was me... chatty and excited. Problem number one, Donald had to deal with my yammering. When we got to the first potty stop — at mile 2 I think — I told him quite matter-of-factly that I was going to hit every porta-potty on the course. No, I didn’t hear an audible groan from him! While there, we talked to two Navajo women who were members of the National Guard out of Gallup. Later we saw there were six Navajos all together, sometimes breaking up in pairs or singles, and then coming back together again. We also talked with a man with two boys, ages 9 and 11. Donald and I talked and had a good time until mile 7. Just prior to that point, I saw the porta-potties off in the distance... water was coming up. My heart sank when I realized the station was somewhere else on the course. As it turns out, it was just a mile away, but that water station seemed a long time in coming.

 

We went around this mountain.
Marchers walked through these misters at mile 10 to cool off.
Just past the half-way point.
Donald at mile 15.

Leaving the water station at mile 8, I had my eyes on the Navajos ahead of us. Goshbedarnit, they weren’t going to beat us! No way Sam! But, we were now on pavement, and heading up, and up, and up... We had to stop four times right off the bat so that I could retie my shoe, work a cramp out of my foot, and who knows what else. The Navajos got way ahead of us then. I was hurting now. The back of my knees had been hurting since mile 2, but now they were groaning. My ankles were protesting this uphill movement, and Donald was repeatedly telling me to control my breathing. I sucked on one hard candy after another in order to do so, and I began a mantra to try and get myself up that mountain!

 

I began to follow Donald rather than walking beside him. It seemed so much easier to concentrate on his feet or shadow than to “look up” or “ahead” to some unknown point. We weren’t yet to mile 10, and I was already thinking of giving up. We seemed to be accompanied by a soldier as well. He was a short fellow with a 35-lb rucksack, and he was always “just back there a bit.” Colonel Gerald Schurtz (ret.), who has got to be sixty-ish — the son of Paul Schurtz who survived the Death March, but perished on a Japanese “Hell Ship” — and one of the Memorial March’s organizers, was passing us at that point. He was full of encouragement, speaking to people as he passed, but I think he took special note of us because of our T-shirts, which have the Battling Bastards of Bataan symbol, and say “200th and 515th Coast Artillery”. In any case, when the old folks, children and heavy women are passing you it doesn’t much add to your morale!

 

At mile 10, we turned off the pavement and moved onto a dirt trail. All along, I had tried very hard to keep my complaints to myself and not burden Donald. For the next few miles I was beating myself up. I didn’t want to stop, because I knew stopping was hard on him, and yet I just had to. I thought of the dances back home, and how the sound of the rattles punctuate a song, and I began to pace myself accordingly with my walking stick keeping time. Little did I know this side of the mountain was relatively easy compared to what lay ahead. The Navajos had stopped to rest at mile 10, and we were all watching each other. We left before they did, but they caught us and passed us on the trail, and the “short fellow marching heavy” was somewhere behind us. We began to feel a warm breeze that helped to cool us, but later the same breeze would hurt us.

 

Just before mile 13, Donald was looking for flowers, a particular kind I realized he had come to know from his last trips around this mountain, and when he found them, he plucked a couple and stuck them in my hat so that I would be all set for my picture at the half-way point. Well there weren’t any cameras as we were told, but we took pictures of each other just the same, had a few giggles and moved on.

 

At the water station at mile 15, we saw the dad with the two young boys. The younger of the two was running around all over the place! My mouth must have been hanging open while watching him. The Navajos were all at the aid station. The three left anyway. Two had gotten behind back around mile 8, and one had split off after that and had gotten way ahead. We assume he made it and didn’t drop out. We hoped he made it anyway. Donald and I plunked our selves down on a dirt embankment and I peeled off my socks to let my feet air.

 

While I would eat as many oranges as I could carry, Donald would eat only one portion (quarter), and I was guzzling Gatorade and water. I tried to grab at least one half of a banana at every stop as well. After we started out again, one of the Navajos, a female named Silversmith passed us, and then we her. She was eating a granola bar. I finally spoke. I asked her if the people at the aid station had given the granola bar to her, or had she brought it. She told me it was hers. Donald told me they didn’t have granola bars at the aid stations. I was shocked and surprised. All this time I was waiting for the stop where we’d get something besides oranges and bananas, and I was dreaming of a tuna fish sandwich!

 

The next stretch was horrendous. Donald even began to hurt now... visibly hurt, he would never tell me. He was walking funny, and I couldn’t quite put my finger on the cause as I trailed behind him. I had no idea he was hiding a knee injury. We weren’t talking, and none of the things that had gotten me up the mountain while on pavement were working mentally to get me over the next four miles. The trail can be compared to a dry riverbed. One that winds this way and then that, going up, then down, up and down. We had to be careful with our footing. Every now and then I would place a foot down on a rock that would hit the blister on the bottom of my foot square. I would cramp in one foot and had to ask Donald to stop so the cramp would ease, and when at one point we sat down, the Navajo got ahead of us. She was noticeably hurting too. At about mile 17, a snake came slithering across the path going right between Donald’s legs before disappearing into the bushes! Had the soldier passing us at that particular time not said anything I’m not sure either one of us would have noticed it. It was fast and Donald DID jump! The soldier called back to him, “You didn’t know you had that kind of energy left in you did you?”

 

It was about this time that Donald pointed out a mother and son team, telling me she had been reading the book she was carrying the entire way. The boy was about 12 and they both were in excellent shape. Since mile 10 we seemed to be marching with the same people, passing or trailing, they were always the same, but I hadn’t noticed the mother and son. We also began to see a lot of people being carried out on four-wheelers — people who were dropping out and being carried to the aid stations to wait transport back to the staging area in vans.

 

At mile 19, we sat and rested again. This was where Donald mentioned his knee, but he assured me it was okay. It was very hard getting up again let me tell you. I wanted to linger, but knew if we did, I may never get going again. We made notice of the Navajo sitting at the aid station as we moved out, and I yelled at her as we passed, “Come on Dine’ we’re waiting on you!” Back on a portion of the same pavement we came up the mountain on, and with the mountain behind us, we got chatty again. We had picked up some energy, but my knees were now fighting the downhill movement. When we got to the highway, Donald moved out to the left of me to protect me from traffic, and I thought of how much extra wear and tear my being along had put on him, that last year at this time the two of us were enjoying the closing ceremonies, he having finished the course two hours prior. Back on a small path that would lead us back to the main road into the Missile Range, the Navajo passed us. Gone were all her aches and ailments!

 

Just before the water station at mile 20 an RV came down the road honking. An older man was yelling out the window, telling us how well we were doing. We can’t be positive because the man wasn’t wearing a pith helmet, but we believe that was Colonel Schurtz, done and going home!

 

At the water station, I changed my socks for the last time. I asked Donald if he would go on without me if I quit. He had already told me we were facing the most difficult part of the entire route, and I was exhausted. He told me he would quit with me, and so for the next six miles, every time it flashed through my head that I wasn’t going to make it I would think of him, and that would be my incentive for continuing to put one foot in front of the other. At one point, he was about to wave a man on a four wheeler to stop, but I told him emphatically, “No!” From mile 20 to mile 22, I began to complain. I would ask, “Where does this road go?” “Where are we going?” “How much more sand do we have to go through like this?” Because I could not convince even myself that I was complaining too much, I began to concentrate on the veterans. I thought of Mr. Padilla who was only 18 when he made the Death March. He had to march like this at least five days in a row, maybe the average of seven it took to complete the original march. In 1942, a man’s only two options were to keep marching, or face a bayonet. There was no water... no bananas... men were sick from dysentery, malaria, and a host of other diseases.

 

The groups I had taken notice of on the mountain were now all together. There was a group of five soldiers together, a pair of soldiers together, three Navy men stationed at White Sands, and the mother and son team. Prior to mile 22, the Navajo passed us for the last time. We never saw her again. My only thought then was, “Go Dine’, you go!” The mother and son team were gone from sight before mile 24. Donald said the boy was weaving a bit the last he saw them, but he was sure they made it.

 

We sat for a time at the water station at mile 24. I ate some oranges, but was too tired to carry any with me as I had been doing all along. We were two and one-half miles away. The warm breezes had turned into gusts of wind. We had seen huge “dirt devils” dancing in the distance, and now we were walking face into that mess. I put my head down and refused to look up after leaving the water station, more from exhaustion than for protection. I followed the sound of Donald’s footsteps and his shadow. Almost a mile down the road I felt like my blister had popped. I felt searing pain and I was just too tired to cry as I sat on the ground. Donald took my sock off to have a look. When I saw that the blister was still in tact, I wanted to cry because we were stopping for no reason at all!

 

At mile 25, the women at the aid station were asking us to use the trashcan up ahead for our empty cups, and the two soldiers from the mountain were holding the bag open for us. Where did they get the energy to help us? It took all my concentration to move the five extra steps towards the trashcan! Donald kept telling me how close we were, or talking to other people we were passing, or who were passing us. Where did he get the energy to talk? A man on a four-wheeler stopped for a Filipina soldier whose hat had flown over the wall we were walking by. He told her she could just jump the wall to get it. I knew from where that evil look on her face at his comment came from. Another soldier, however, retrieved the hat for her.

 

When we finally made it to the finish line, Donald was kissing me and telling me we had done it. It was like a fog lifting from my brain. I should be jumping up and down right? What should I be doing? All I did was smile at him. Thankfully, there were still a few people left to cheer the late comers in, and we did receive our key chains and meal tickets, but gee... everyone had gone home, AND we didn’t get our picture taken at the end! Donald said our time was 11 hours and 49 minutes.

 

After washing up as best as I could, we went to the Frontier Lounge for our meal. Who knows what great bar-b-que we missed coming in so late, but there it was... a whole tub of tuna! I had my tuna sandwich! The two soldiers from the mountain, and the group of five were already eating when we came in. The Scout leader from El Paso and another of his boys came in after us. We asked about the two boys we had met that morning. They had finished.

 

SSgt Javier Herrera

“The Short Fellow Marching Heavy”

While telling this story to the children, I asked them, “Who do you think we saw then?” My daughter asked excitedly, “The Navajo?” Her dad and I laughed, and I had to tell her, “No, not the Navajo.”

 

When we finished eating and went outside, sitting on the steps was the “short fellow marching heavy” who was always “just back there a bit.” I told him I thought he had gotten ahead of us. He smiled and told me, “No, no.” I feel kind of sad about this now. Had we known this man was still back there, we would have waited for him and cheered him across the finish line. At least I hope we would have.

 

Our car was still a mile at least up the road, and no way no how were we walking any more if we could avoid it! Donald bummed a ride from some Jr. ROTC teens from Las Cruces who were sitting around out front. Incidentally, they had come in third in their division.

 

And so there you go... I told Donald that I would never do this again. From now on, I will be content to wait on him. I did tell him, “Thank you for taking me.” For me, making this march was the fulfillment of an obligation. For those men who mean so much to me, who gave us the freedoms we now enjoy, I would do this. And where those men, all through their prison camp days, depended on their buddy, I would not have been able to do this without Donald.

 

 

As always . . . for Carlos . . .

 

Love to all,

Bernadett

 

5 April 2001

 

 

June 23, 2004 — Since I wrote this letter in 2001, Mr. Earl Harris, Mr. Lorenzo Banegas, and Mr. Ruben Flores, have all passed away. Mrs. Harris and her son Dean are active members of the Bataan-Correidor Memorial Foundation of New Mexico, Inc. Mr. Banegas’ “Corrido de Bataan” was featured in a Smithsonian exhibit beginning just a few months after his death. He and Mr. Flores, best of friends, were pillars at the Bataan Memorial Death March. Manuel Armijo, 92, officiated over the Bataan Memorial Ceremony in Santa Fe for the last time this past April — the ceremony he began in 1946 — he passed away yesterday, Tuesday, June 22, 2004. I ran into Mr. Aldrich not long ago at the Post Office. He was chatting with everyone that came in and filled me in on the progress of Ms. Cave’s book on Father Albert Braun.

 

February 8, 2008 — Mr. Aimes, present at practically every meeting since the birth of the Bataan-Corregidor Memorial Foundation, yet always declining a seat on the Board, died at his home on February 3, 2008.