How I Survived the “Bataan Memorial Death March”

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Bataan Death March Team

Last weekend I had the honor of participating in the Bataan Memorial Death March with some incredible soldiers. This was by far one of the most challenging tasks I have ever endured.

Let me start by giving you some of the details of the march…

The Bataan Memorial Death March is a challenging march through the high desert terrain of the White Sands Missile Range, conducted in honor of the heroic service members who defended the Philippine Islands during World War II, sacrificing their freedom, health and, in many cases, their very lives. Read more about the actual Death March here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bataan_Death_March

You can register for the event as either Military or Civilian and choose to go light (No weight) or Heavy (Min 35lbs in your pack). I registered as Civilian, Heavy.  You can choose to do the 13.1 mile or 26.2 mile course. I did the full 26.2 course.  Most participants come in Friday afternoon, pick up their packets and get situated. On Saturday there are a lot of activities and chances to meet and hear from some of the survivors of the Bataan Death March in April 1942. On Sunday, you march and try to make it back to base before the closing ceremonies.

My Story…

I flew into El Paso, Texas Saturday early afternoon, rented a car and drove to White Sands Missile Range. White Sands Missile Range (WSMR) is a United States Army rocket range of almost 3,200 sq miles in southern New Mexico, and is where they tested the first atomic bomb. It is in the middle of nowhere and the largest military installation in the United States.

I arrived at the base around 5:30 pm, got through security and headed to registration. I picked up my packet and had a chance to speak with a few of the remaining survivors.

After registration I left the base and drove about 45 minutes to meet up with the guys I would be marching with the next day. My good friend retired Army Captain Tony Zucca is the only one I knew out of our six man team. Tony put the team together and he had invited me. I was the only non-military person on our team. They had arrived the day before and were already settled in. We ate a huge pasta dinner and spent the time getting to know each other. A few of the guys had done the march before and gave us some details so we would know what to expect. This was eye opening and for the first time I realized how dangerous this could be.

After dinner I checked into the hotel, repacked my backpack five times, freaked out for a while and went to bed.

Wake up call at 3:30 am and it was time to go. I took a quick shower, got dressed and we headed back to White Sands. The crowd was intense and there were about 6,000 marchers. The Opening Ceremony was inspiring and I really started to feel how historical and important this march was. I also started to realize how much pain I was going to endure throughout the day, but only a small taste of the pain the real heroes felt in ‘42.

Bataan Memorial Death March   Bataan Memorial Death March

A few cannons were fired, they played the National Anthem, a Blackhawk helicopter did a fly by and we were off!

I’m not going to bore you with all the details mile by mile… But know this…

I hiked 26.2 miles in the desert sand and the hot asphalt, with a heavy backpack on. It was a full day of excruciating pain. At mile 20 I just wanted to collapse and was mentally and physically done, but there was still over 6 miles to go.

It’s a special kind of fun.

Bataan Memorial Death March 2016  The Bataan Memorial Death March

One of the highlights of the march was at mile marker 14. They set up a staging area with food, drinks and cots to sit on. People could re-group, change socks and have lunch. While we were breaking at mile 14 my friend Army Captain Tony Zucca re-enlisted one of our other team members, Sgt Matthew G. McGrail for another 6 year tour in the United States Air Force. It was a really cool experience and the crowd all watched and cheered for him.

Enlisting Exercise

I finished in about 11 hours and my bag weighed in at 48.5 lbs. My back will take weeks to heal, my feet have blisters, I’m bruised all over and I’m missing a chunk of my big toe.

Bataan Death March    Bataan Memorial Death March    Ryan Kelley At Bataan

But here’s the deal… The next day I got to jump on a plane and come home to recover. Tens of thousands of the original Bataan Death Marchers never got that chance!

So the question I keep getting asked… Would you do it again? And my answer… Absolutely… But not for a VERY long time.

No Mama, No Papa, No Uncle Sam…

God Bless America!

Bataan Memorial Death March