Flags of New Mexico and the Philippines

A Memorial March: New Mexico's 35th Bataan Memorial Death March

Philippines Asia

Now in its 35th year, New Mexico's Bataan Memorial Death March continues to memorialize the sacrifices made by American and Filipino soldiers as prisoners of war during World War II. During the war, the infamous trek forced about 75,000 American and Filipino troops to march over 65 miles to a prison camp in the Philippines under inhumane conditions.

In 1987, retired Army Lieutenant Colonel (Lt. Col.) Ray Pickering was a senior at New Mexico State University (NMSU) and just a unit short of completing his college degree.

The then Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) cadet offered the unconventional idea of retracing the harrowing steps of the soldiers who endured the infamous Bataan Death March to make up for that one missing credit. This time, however, the trek would take place in New Mexico to be able to pay tribute to the resilience of American and Filipino soldiers and to ensure their memories will never be forgotten.

However, his peers and commanding officer were not receptive to the idea of holding a memorial march. LTC Pickering was challenged by his captain to a test march to see if his idea could attract participants. To pass the challenge, LTC Pickering had to convince 25 other cadets to take part in the test march.

The 22-mile test march took place in December 1987 from the Horseshoe at NMSU to Baylor Canyon Pass in the Organ Mountains, which is east of Las Cruces. LTC Pickering was a cadet short of winning the challenge. Fortunately, the test march was enough to convince his captain to organize future marches.

Born out of a simple desire for academic credit, the march has since evolved to a venerated commemoration of the valor and sacrifices of American and Filipino soldiers during World War II (WWII). The first memorial march was held in April 1988. The ROTC Department at NMSU began sponsoring the Bataan Memorial Death March the following year in 1989.

The memorial march recognized the contributions of the 200th Coast Artillery of the New Mexico National Guard, a portion of which became the 515th Coast Artillery deployed to assist in defending the Philippines during the Second World War. In 1992, White Sands Missile Range and the New Mexico National Guard joined in sponsorship, and the memorial march was moved to the former’s location. White Sands Missile Range is made up of high desert where marchers can pick between two routes: a 14.2-mile and a 26.2-mile course.

To honor the survivors of Bataan, ROTC NMSU changed its name to "Bataan Battalion" from “Desperado Battalion” in 1992, upon approval by the Corps of Cadets as a living embodiment of their courage. To ensure these memories live on, the event introduced the salute greeting, "Remember Bataan!" and the response, "Always!"

The event grew in significance in the following years. The cherished tradition is now celebrating its 35th year and continues to serve as a constant reminder of the enduring relations of the United States and the Philippines.

The 35th Annual Bataan Memorial Death March this year took place at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico on March 16, 2024, with over 5,000 marchers participating. Over the years, the march has captured a diverse audience wherein civilians have participated despite the march being primarily a military event.

Prior to this year’s observance, the White Sands Missile Range Frontier Club hosted a reception on March 14, where the Remember Bataan Foundation of Las Cruces honored the veterans of Bataan and Corregidor and their families. The Foundation aims to honor the memory of these heroes and to educate the public and future generations about their sacrifices.

Dennis Flake, a public historian and writer for the Philippine Daily Inquirer, highlighted the significance of the memorial march to Filipino and American veterans to the East-West Center: “The memorial March in New Mexico is so important because most of the veterans of the March have passed. Who is going to tell their story? The New Mexico March passes the torch to a new generation. The horrible story of The Bataan Death March must be told frequently by the sons and daughters and all lovers of history,” he explained.

The Bombing of Pearl Harbor and US Entry into WWII

The US maintained a neutral stance when war began due as a matter of policy, only providing supplies to allied forces such as the United Kingdom through the Lend-Lease Act. With the surprise Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in Hawai’i, the US was forced to defend itself. On December 8, 1941, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt requested Congress to declare war against Japan.

Deployment in New Mexico

Nine and a half hours after the assault on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese began bombing Clark Field and Manila in the Philippines. About 1,800 New Mexicans and West Texans were deployed to the Philippines as personnel of the 200th Coastal Artillery. Around 500 men from the 200th were sent to Manila and assembled alongside Filipino soldiers into a makeshift anti-aircraft unit, subsequently known as the 515th Coast Artillery.

In spotlighting the important roles that the New Mexicans and West Texans played in defending the Philippines, Mr. Flake explained “The 200th and 515th played a major role in providing artillery coverage for the Filipino and American troops retreating from the north and south to the Bataan Peninsula. The men of the 200th and 515th had only arrived recently in the Philippines, but they proved themselves under extreme circumstances.”

The Battle of Bataan

The US Army Forces in the Far East (USAFFE), made up of mostly Philippine Scouts and American soldiers, were tasked to oppose advancing Japanese troops and delay their movements towards Manila Bay. During the Battle of Bataan, the forces of US Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur resisted the Japanese for four months. Gen. MacArthur's strategy was to maintain his position in the Bataan Peninsula and Corregidor Island until the US Navy could deliver troops and supplies for his counterattack. With the US Navy in disarray following the attack on Pearl Harbor, there were no ships capable of transporting the necessary reinforcements and supplies to Bataan.

The Japanese navy blockaded Bataan and adjacent Corregidor. For months, the men in Bataan survived on limited supplies. The Japanese army started its final attack on Bataan on April 3, 1942. Despite their valiant stance, USAFFE forces were no match to Japanese reinforcements. On April 9, 1942, Gen. Edward P. King surrendered to Japanese Gen. Masaharu Homma and USAFFE soldiers became prisoners of war (POWs).

Bataan Death March

The Japanese had planned to force the captured USAFFE soldiers to march the roughly 65-mile, five-to-ten-day route from the Bataan peninsula to San Fernando, Pampanga in the Philippines from which they would be moved by train to Camp O’Donnell in Tarlac. However, the captors were unprepared for the estimated 75,000 American and Filipino POWs under their watch. As such, POWs who could not keep up with the march were executed. POWs were given little water or food, severely weakening their frail bodies. Sympathetic Filipinos along the road risked their lives to provide POWs with food and drink.

In San Fernando, groups as large as 115 men were packed into boxcars designed to hold 30-40 people, resulting in more deaths from heat exhaustion and suffocation while traveling from San Fernando to Tarlac. At the camp's entrance, the POWs were instructed to lay down their meager belongings; any POW found with Japanese-made goods or money was executed on the spot.

Traversing various locations in the Japanese empire, POWs were also kept in so-called “hell ships,” denied of oxygen, space, light, restrooms, food, and water. Dehydration and the unbearable heat ultimately took many lives, as did brutal murders and beatings, but “friendly fire” from allied naval ships, submarines and aircrafts caused most deaths among POWs, with 40% of the estimated 10,500 Americans dying in the crossfire. Of the total American troops, 1,816 soldiers were from the New Mexico National Guard. Only 829 returned.

According to Dennis Flake, the USU Army classified the Bataan Death March as “top secret”. In 1943, six American POWs escaped from a Japanese camp in Davao, Mindanao and told the story about their experiences. The American people were outraged by this news.

Aftermath and Legacy

With Gen. MacArthur’s promised return, the United States liberated the Philippines when reinforcements landed in Leyte in October 1944. In February 1945, Allied forces reclaimed the Bataan Peninsula. Manila was retaken soon after.

The Manila American Cemetery and Memorial (MNAC) in the Philippines is the biggest of 15 World War II cemeteries managed by the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC) abroad. MNAC houses the largest number of American graves with 17,058 interred and 36,286 remembered on the “Walls of the Missing.” According to AMBC, 168 personnel from the 515th Coast Artillery Regiment and 301 personnel from the 200th Coast Artillery Regiment were laid to rest in MNAC. In total, there are 720 New Mexicans from different military branches and units resting in MNAC.

Day of Valor

On April 9, Filipino veterans' families, friends, and advocates met at the National World War II Memorial in Washington, DC to celebrate the Day of Valor (Araw ng Kagitingan), also known as the “Fall of Bataan”. The event was hosted by the Filipino Veterans Recognition and Education Project (FilVetRep), a non-profit organization dedicated to fighting for the benefits, rights, and acknowledgment of Filipino WWII veterans in the aftermath of the 1946 Rescission Acts. With the assistance of the late Senator Daniel Inouye and Senator Mazie Hirono, FilVetRep was able to secure compensation for these veterans as well as the Filipino Veterans of Congressional Gold Medal. A Congressional Gold Medal ceremony was later held at the Philippine Embassy in Washington, DC with four Filipino veterans and their families receiving medals. The film, A Long March, by Director Tammy Botkin documents the plight of Filipino veterans and FilVetRep's advocacy.

The Bataan Death March was a dark, but important part of what shaped US-Philippines bilateral relations. Fighting side by side, the United States and the Philippines formed an ironclad and enduring partnership that continues to deepen through the years. Initiatives such as the Bataan Memorial Death March allow us to learn about history, honor those who have made the ultimate sacrifice, and embody the character and unity they showed in the face of adversity.

The author would like to thank Dennis Edward Flake of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, Lieutenant Colonel Adam Buchanan of New Mexico State University, and Director Tammy Botkin for corresponding with him and for being valuable resources for this article.

John Angelo Gerard "Jag” D.O. Calbario is a participant in the Young Professionals Program at the East-West Center in Washington, DC. He is a graduate student at the American University School of International Service, enrolled in the Master of Arts in International Affairs program with a concentration in global governance.