Story of Bataan Death March has personal connection

2017 Bataan
Bataan survivor Col. Ben Skardon and Ben’s Brigade at the 2017 Bataan Memorial Death March. U.S. Army Reserve photo by Staff Sgt. Ken Scar.
In 2005, I attended my first Bataan Memorial Death March at White Sands Missile Range. Well, part of it. I had only lived in Las Cruces for a month and I couldn’t drag myself out of bed pre-dawn to find out what this event was all about, but I was curious enough to go out later in the day to attend a meeting of survivors and their families. That was it: I was hooked.

I knew the essentials about this World War II event, that U.S. and Philippine soldiers were surrendered to the Japanese on the island of Luzan and force marched great distances in the jungle heat to a POW camp with thousands dying along the way, but I didn’t comprehend why it was so close to the hearts of New Mexicans. I also wanted to delve deeper into the history on a more personal basis, having just heard stories from survivors which left family members in tears, gasping, “He’s never told us any of this before. We had no idea what he went through.” And it began a journey I could never have expected. Walk with me.

When I returned in 2006 for the pre-dawn opening ceremony, I was much better informed and eager to write an article about this uniquely New Mexican commemoration. I had combed through the library and read numerous first-hand and other accounts of the horrors of Bataan. I had become a mini walking encyclopedia of a terrible war atrocity. I knew, then, that the reason we have a Bataan Memorial Highway and a statue of soldiers supporting one another as they marched at Bataan is that of the 5,000 New Mexican men who went to the Philippines as part of the 200th Coast Artillery, only half made it home. That everyone knew somebody who survived or died during the march, ensuing years in POW camps, or on the Hell Ships used to transport the POWs to Japan and China to serve as slave labor. Now I was ready to get down to business and find out how New Mexico honors her own.

2017 Bataan Memorial
Col. Skardon crosses his personal finish line at 8.5 miles at the 2017 Bataan Memorial Death March. SWS Editor Cheryl Fallstead films on the right. U.S. Army Reserve photo by Staff Sgt. Ken Scar.
I didn’t have an assignment yet, but I snapped pictures and got some quotes. One photo turned out to be pivotal. It was of a Bataan survivor shaking hands with a young military man. They both had huge smiles on their faces. The survivor was wearing a bright orange windbreaker — which turned out to be a vital clue to help identify him and a comment about who he is. I didn’t know it yet, but he would become an important part of my life. I didn’t have time to talk to him that day as thousands of marchers streamed by. When they were gone, he was, too. I found out later where he had gone.

After my day recording the events of the 2006 Bataan Memorial Death March, I started looking for a publication that would be interested in the story of a marathon in the desert that draws military and civilian participants from around the world and has the bonus of World War II veterans in attendance as the guests of honor. I found my market in American Profile, which at the time was a Saturday insert in the Las Cruces Sun-News and focuses on small town stories across the country. It was just their kind of story and we agreed on a publication date just before the 2007 march.

As I worked on my story, I was drawn back to the photo of that survivor in orange. He had to be part of my story. But who was he? I noticed a white paw print on the windbreaker and thought of Clemson University. Sure enough, on the list of survivors present that year, there was a first-timer from Clemson named Colonel Beverly “Ben” Skardon. I found his phone number online and gave him a call. We had a lovely talk about his experience in Las Cruces and he told me that after all the marchers had passed him by, he turned to his attending grandson, also Ben, and suggested they do a little marching themselves. Off they went, for about six miles. At the time, Col. Skardon was 88 years old.

He wore the Clemson jacket because he had been a Clemson student and cadet who, after a full military career, became a Clemson professor. He shared a lot of information with me during our conversation, then mailed me more. Copies of letters he sent home after liberation while he was being nursed back to health before shipping home, describing in detail to his mother all the food he couldn’t wait to eat when he got there. (Food was often on the minds of men who had been starving to death.) About how he weighed only 97 pounds when they were liberated and how embarrassed he was to be seen in public after getting home because he was so very gaunt. A copy of the speech he gave in 2005 at the USS Missouri in Pearl Harbor for the 60th anniversary of the surrender of Japan to the United States, summarizing his horrific experiences. Being deathly ill with beri-beri and malaria before — and even more after — the march. Trying to march inside the column to avoid being randomly bayonetted by the Japanese who were walking them 80 miles to a POW camp. Hiding a can of condensed milk in a sock so he could sip from it to keep up his strength when the Japanese either issued a rice ball…or nothing…to the starving men. Being saved from certain death from malnutrition by two fellow Clemson alumni in his camp who traded his hidden class ring for a chicken and a small can of ham, which they cooked and spoon-fed to him. How it felt to smuggle a pod of okra while working in the fields and let it melt in his mouth. Being crammed in the hull of Hell Ships — three in total as the first two were sunk by our planes because the ships weren’t marked as POW transports — to work as slave labor in China. Explaining how 1600 American POWs began the voyage and only about 400 reached Japan before further transport to Mukden, Manchuria. Being liberated in August 1945 by the Russian Army. How the two classmates who saved him never made it home.

We stayed in touch and when the story came out, I asked him if he was coming to New Mexico for the march again. He was. Would he march again? He would. Could I march with him? I could. That was the beginning of something that has grown and grown beyond my wildest expectations.

That year, Col. Ben Skardon returned to Las Cruces ready to march farther than he had the year before. I hung out with him over the weekend, finally meeting him in person when I showed up late for the survivors’ talks on Saturday due to not allowing enough time to get through the gate on base. I slipped in quietly and, upon seeing me, he stopped his presentation and asked in his silky Southern voice, “Are you Cheryl? We’ve been waiting for you!” That evening, at the pasta dinner, we were joined by a man who was at the march alone. We asked what brought him there and he mentioned an article he had seen in a magazine. Ben and I exchanged looks while he pulled the clipping from his wallet. We smiled and Ben said, “She wrote it!” and I said, “And that picture is of him!” He was thrilled to meet us and asked us to sign it. We were thrilled someone read it and decided to attend the march. Ben dubbed me his publicist.

The next morning, after the opening ceremony, we started marching. Our group that year was small: Ben, his granddaughter, Clara, me, and his former Clemson student and friend, David Stalnaker of Texas. Ben’s goal was to march farther than his previous six miles. After having studied the maps, I suggested that if he could make it to the 8.5-mile point, we’d be ending at a major crossroad that had a medical tent, an aid station, and likely a van to take us back to base. Secretly, I also thought it would be nice if folks noticed a survivor coming to their station and maybe they’d give him a round of applause. Ben decided to make that his goal and make it he did.

Each year, that point has been his goal and each year he has achieved it. He has attended every year but one since that first time. The group marching with him has grown exponentially. As word grew among family, friends, former students, and fellow faculty, many others have echoed my request, “Can I march with you?”

We went from being a rather small, rogue group of unofficial marchers to a large group who are recognized on sight. We now have our own medic, public affairs specialist, ROTC cadet, and sag wagon. Last year, we had “our own” television crew from 60 Minutes (they broadcast one version of the story on 60 Minutes Sports and we hear a story will be aired on 60 Minutes around Memorial Day.). He has been interviewed by news outlets from across the country and Japan.

Along the way, I have met some amazing people and been accepted into the warm embrace of the extended Skardon family. Daughters and granddaughters and grandsons and nephews and nieces have come to Las Cruces to march with Ben (or Paw-Paw or Uncle Ben depending). Neighbors who live on his street, where he is the unofficial mayor have come to the desert. Students who never heard him utter a word about his Bataan experiences have marched with him. Fellow Clemson faculty come who want to experience this with him. People with fascinating stories of their own that somehow I don’t find the time to learn. Others, like Las Crucen Kathy von Ende, who lost family members at Bataan want to spend time with Ben, forming a link to their lost loved one. We are a diverse group brought together by our love and admiration of one man.

A few years ago, I was in South Carolina for a conference and arranged to visit with Ben. I anticipated a few relaxing days sipping sweet tea on the verandah, but instead I was treated to a VIP tour of the beautiful Clemson campus, starting with a meeting with the president of the university, Jim Clements. He gave me a lovely Clemson tiger paw pin and I gave him a Ben’s Brigade T-shirt. We spent two days exploring the historic campus and beautiful gardens. Another day, we slipped into North Carolina for lunch at Ben’s daughter Sa’s beautiful country home. We went out to dinner with friends. I was charmed and felt quite at home.

The first few years Ben attended the march, I coordinated a lunch at La Posta before his Saturday talk. (Ben loves tamales and is searching for the best to be found in southern New Mexico because all he can get in Clemson are tamales in a can.) Then, as the group grew, now dubbed Ben’s Brigade and wearing Clemson orange T-shirts I designed featuring an image of Ben as a cadet, we started hosting the meal at our house. (Somewhere along the line I convinced my husband, Brian, he needed to meet these people and become part of the brigade.) Then it became dinner rather than lunch to allow for more relaxed socializing. Now it includes dinners on two nights, with one night a Mexican fiesta. Saturday night this year we had over 80 members of the brigade here to eat with and honor Col. Ben Skardon.

As that huge group marched on a hot spring morning this year, Ben characteristically made mock speeches and jokes at the mile markers, asking different members of the brigade to stand with him. He was greeted as a celebrity at aid stations, where volunteers snapped photos with him and shook his hand. (One year an entire group of volunteers hit the deck and did push-ups for him.) He was, as tradition dictates, “arrested” for oryx poaching by Game and Fish (he has yet to see an oryx, but hope springs eternal). Vast fields of poppies bloomed in great orange swathes, echoing the colors of our orange shirts and hats. Ben grew quieter and more introspective as the miles went on, then he gave, at the eight-mile mark as we approached our destination, a heart-felt speech about how honored he was to be accompanied by so many who care about him. We, of course, were honored to be with a man we all know to exemplify qualities we hope to emulate: survival, loyalty, and faith. Whose great strength of will not only helped him survive the Bataan Death March, but that allows him, a man who will turn 100 on Bastille Day in July, to march over eight miles on a 90-degree day at over 4,000 feet of elevation. And charm marchers and volunteers along the way.

Last year, when 60 Minutes was out filming, I felt that Ben was getting tired. As he and I marched together for a while, I said, “Ben, you know, just because you always have walked eight and a half miles, it doesn’t mean you have to walk eight and a half miles. Nobody will think any less of you if you have to stop earlier.”

He gave me a stern, professorial look and replied evenly but firmly, “Cheryl, there is one thing and one thing only I have to do today and that is to walk eight and a half miles. Don’t mess with my head.” And that was the end of that.

His determination is fueled by his need to pay homage in general to the thousands who never made it home from Bataan, but specifically to those two Clemson classmates, Henry Leitner and Otis Morgan, who saved his life and then lost their own. It is a debt he can never repay. At Clemson, in a special area set aside to honor Clemson students who lost their lives in service of their country, there are plaques for both men. On the day when Clemson honors them, Ben places flags next to their plaques. I saw their names as part of my tour and it made those men, of whom I had heard so many times, more real and made the story that much more poignant. And increased my gratitude for what they did to keep Ben alive.

Now, if you hear me say, “I’ll be marching with Ben at Bataan this weekend,” you know the story. How we met. How Ben’s Brigade formed and grew. And what drives us each year to gather around him and follow in his footsteps. Why we honor him and who he, in turn, is honoring.