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“Barely alive, weighing 80 pounds, the dying Shillito vowed, ‘I’d at least die on my feet.’ Pulling himself up with guts and will, clinging to the barrack’s wall, he forced himself to hobble around and around the building. Three days later he was dragged back into the fields to share the misery of forced labor with his fellow POWs. Winston Shillito refused to give up.”


— Dorothy Cave

“New Mexico Magazine,” April 1998



Bataan Memorial Death March


The country’s largest military memorial march recognizes the sacrifice and suffering of the thousands of US and Filipino service members who fought gallantly in defense of the Philippines during World War II, many of those being members of the New Mexico National Guard’s 200th Coast Artillery (Anti-aircraft) regiment.


Following the surrender of Bataan on 9 April 1942, prisoners were force marched 65 miles — for up to twelve hours a day for five to seven days — without food, water and rest to Camp O’Donnell. Those that fell behind were brutally slain. Men were made to dig their own graves and then were buried alive. They were used as target practice for uninitiated Japanese guards, or executed for having souvenirs of Japanese origin. Men were pushed in front of passing trucks, their bodies becoming only shadows on the road. One survivor recalled counting two decapitated heads for every mile of the march.


New Mexico State Army ROTC Cadet Ray Pickering of Las Cruces and ROTC Captain Floyd Quintana of Española, together with other cadet officers, organized the first memorial march in 1988, then called the “General Hugh Milton Memorial March” for former New Mexico A&M (NMSU’s predecessor) president, an army officer who fought to liberate the Philippines. Meant to honor the Bataan survivors who gave their full support that first year, the name was changed to the “Bataan Memorial Death March” the following year.


The original route was 22 miles in length which included a 2,500 foot accent up Baylor Pass. Active duty military and ROTC marchers made up five-man teams in heavy or light weight divisions. The heavy division teams carried 35-lb packs which were weighed at the end of the march. Teams were allowed to lose only one member, and were disqualified if more than one dropped out. These rules still apply today in respect to “teams.”


Thirty teams participated in that first march with the number doubling in the second year. The Las Cruces community, the New Mexico National Guard, the Doña Ana Sheriff’s Department and Fort Bliss Army Base lent their support providing money, meals, refreshments, equipment and personnel with NMSU and the BLM allowing access to the course itself.


In 1992, fearing lawsuits, the BLM insisted that ROTC marchers carry $300,000 in liability insurance in the event they were injured, and so the march was canceled. The commander of White Sands Missile Range then offered to sponsor the march which was held in October of that year. The new course was a 25 mile desert trek across hilly terrain, sandy trails and arroyo washes with a 1,200 ft accent. The course is now 26.2 miles. It is sponsored by White Sands Missile Range, the New Mexico National Guard, and New Mexico State University’s Army ROTC Department.


Marchers find the trek difficult and sometimes hazardous, but they return time and again. In the fifth year, international teams began to enter, and in the sixth year, new divisions for individual marchers and civilian participants were created.


In 1998, Winston Shillito, G Battery 515th Coast Artillery, made the march at age 78 “for those who didn’t come home.”


Over 4,000 entrants made the grueling march on 14 April 2002. The day before, Highway 70 between Las Cruces and Alamogordo was dedicated as “Bataan Memorial Highway.”


In 2003, due to the large number of deploying service members for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the March was canceled, although a shorter course was allowed for family members and commemorative marchers which developed into the now "Blue Route", a 15 mile alternative to the full 26.2 mile marathon, now referred to as the “Green Route”.


In the last several years, “Wounded Warriors” have participated in the march and are the first marchers to start out after the opening ceremonies as day breaks over the Organ Mountains. These veterans of Iraq, Afghanistan or Vietnam, have lost limbs or suffered serious injuries in those conflicts.


New Mexico State University’s Army ROTC Bataan Battalion sponsors the Bataan Death March History Seminar which is held on Saturday, the day before the march, which is attended by Bataan survivors. The Bataan Battalion also mans water stations, processes marcher’s applications, and they enter teams. They are also active in soliciting funds from area merchants. It should be remembered it was they who first committed themselves to honor the men on Bataan with the march, thus beginning a new tradition which serves to perpetuate the memory of, as well as to educate on the history of, those brave New Mexicans in the Philippines.




© 1998-2011, BCMFofNM, Inc.