Sometimes the saying "a once in a lifetime" opportunity can be cliche. The phrase is often used to emphasize the specialness of a certain event or meeting. But other times it can exactly describe something that will truly only happen once and never again. And this is a great gift. Two weeks ago, I was given a gift and "a once in a lifetime" experience when I marched with Colonel Ben Skardon and "Ben's Brigade" during the Bataan Memorial Death March.
You probably don't remember me mentioning it in my last article, because, in fact, I purposefully left it out. It was such an important part of the Bataan Weekend that I could not relegate it to a paragraph or two. Who is Col. Ben Skardon? And what is "Ben's Brigade?"
Col. Ben ("Uncle Ben" or just "Ben") is a 99-year old Bataan Death March survivor, American POW, and member of the Clemson University Alumni, who for the last 10 years has made it his mission to march 8.5 miles of the Bataan Memorial Death March in honor of the friends and servicemen lost that fateful spring of 1942, when America suffered the greatest surrender to an outside enemy in our entire history. Col. Ben was a young captain in the 92nd Infantry PA (Philippine Army), when Bataan surrendered. He survived the brutal march, three years of horrendous Japanese Pow camps, the sinking of two unmarked Japanese POW ships, and countless sicknesses and diseases contracted while in the camps, only to be liberated by the Russians in Manchuria, late 1945, weighing a grand total of 90 pounds. His story is one of determination and perseverance. At 99 years old - nearly 100, these qualities are strong as ever, demonstrated again each year as he treks the difficult 8.5 miles through sand and heat.
And that is where Ben's Brigade comes in. In their bright Clemson orange t-shirts, hoodies, and caps, the brigade is hard to miss - even in a crowd of over 7,000 runners/marchers. On race day, as Col. Ben stepped down from the van that carried him to the opening ceremonies, he conducted the members of the brigade who had burst out singing the Clemson fight song, cheering him, and taking pictures simultaneously. I've never been into sports too much... but the camaraderie and infectious enthusiasm of the Clemson crowd was too much not to join in.
The truth is that until about a month ago, I had never heard of Ben's Brigade. I had read of Col. Ben, but it had been a few years and in the context of other research I was doing. However thanks to the wonderful world of social media and a mutual acquaintance lending a helping hand, I was introduced to this remarkable, hilarious, and all around swell group of people.
From what I understand, Ben's Brigade initially started as only a handful of people who wanted to march alongside Col. Ben as he made this "pilgrimage," but as he continued to make a return to the Bataan March each year, so did his friends; and the handful of people (made up almost entirely of members of Clemson University - past, present, and future) kept growing and took on the fabulous name of "Ben's Brigade." I don't know for sure, but I think this year there must have been close to 50 members of Ben's Brigade making the march with him.
As I mentioned, an acquaintance from social media who heard that I was going to march contacted me about Ben's Brigade. On learning that Col. Ben was going to be at the Bataan March and participate yet again, I realized that if nothing else happened that weekend, it would be the greatest honor to walk a couple of miles with him. Imagine, marching the Bataan Memorial Death March with a Bataan Death March Survivor! It's extraordinary.
My friend put me in contact with one of the wonderful people organizing the group, who in turn welcomed me warmly and invited me to join in their pre race dinner, despite my being a complete outsider! Well, this was all too good to be true, and honestly, looking back on the weekend, I couldn't have planned it to be more perfect.
The evening before the race, everyone gathered for a dinner of true Mexican food (something you don't often find!) and ultimate southern hospitality (even rarer). My host graciously took me around, introducing me to the members of Ben's Brigade, and within minutes everyone seemed like old friends. When I was introduced to Col. Ben, I naturally told him about my uncle, Israel, the driving purpose behind my trip out to New Mexico. Of all the Bataan veterans I met that week, he was the only one I talked with who was held at Camp Cabanatuan during the same period of time as my uncle. His face fell when he heard the name of the camp, and he asked what month Israel died. "August 1942," I told him. "August," he repeated. "July and August had the highest death rates at Cabanatuan... we lost 100 men per day." And his eyes were moist.
That was when I realized something about him. Even at 99 years of age, after decades of remembering and sharing stories of Bataan, he is still moved by the sacrifices of our men. It was touching and beautiful to me. Col. Ben would laugh and tell jokes, always the life of the party, but he is also deeply sincere. He doesn't make this march each year for the publicity. He does it because he feels a duty and responsibility. He feels he owes it to the men who never came back.
Throughout the evening, despite Col. Ben being enormously popular, I had several opportunities to sit and chat about life, the war, his family's Cajun cooking, or the time his father, a choir boy, sang at President Jefferson Davis' funeral. The stories continued.
Listening to this American Treasure, I felt that the stories I was hearing... about Bataan, Cabanatuan, or pre-war life came as close as possible to listening to the stories my uncle would have shared, had he survived.
Each person I spoke with that evening had a different story of how he had touched his/her life, been an inspiration to them, or given a good dose of humor just when it was needed. I learned that as a newly appointed captain when the Battle of Bataan started, in a very short time his bravery had been awarded with two Silver Stars (3rd highest US military decoration) and four Bronze Stars. I can only imagine how inspired his men must have felt to have had him as a leader. No wonder then that two of his best friends nearly died trying to save his life when he became deathly ill at Cabanatuan! If only that type of leadership and courage could be bottled up!
After the opening ceremonies on Race Day, Col. Ben and Ben's Brigade gathered at the start line waiting for all of the runners/marchers to get on their way before starting their trek. It was wonderful to watch people stop by and greet the Colonel and his entourage, old friends and first timers. About an hour after the first runner crossed the start line, Ben's Brigade heave-hoed and headed out. It was pretty terrific to watch this great orange crowd, enthusiastically led by Colonel Ben, move forward.
The pace could have been considered slow for some people... but considering Col. Ben is nearly 100 years old, it was nothing short of absolutely impressive (I know I'll be fortunate if I'm mobile when I'm 80)! And it's well known that slow and steady wins the race. At Mile 1, everyone paused to take a picture at the sign post, and Col. Ben gave a little speech about the necessity of taking a photo with each mile marker to prove you actually did it! Then at his command we moved forward.
Because of time constraints and the reality that I still had to complete 24 more miles, I peeled off from the Brigade after two miles. But those two miles were unforgettable. Nothing dramatic or earth-shattering happened, but it was simply the fact that here I was, marching the Bataan Memorial March with one of the men who survived the original Bataan Death March. Between chatting with members of Ben's Brigade and snatching a word or two with Col. Ben, I had to just pause mentally and take it all in. It was terrific.
At the beginning I said this was a once in a lifetime experience. I think that's right. Everything about it. The March, Col. Ben, the connections with my uncle, the 99+ years of history it involved... I've never heard of another WWII veteran making a trek quite like this. And if you'll excuse a word that is often overused, but so true here: It was amazing.
So that is the story of Col. Ben and his fabulous Brigade. It's really only a tiny portion of the story. The story of an outsider who became an insider for a couple of days. It was one of the greatest honors for me to be included in such a wonderful group of people, so dedicated and honoring. The short time I had getting to know Col. Ben was truly the highlight of the week. It seemed to bring full circle years of reading and studying about Bataan and my uncle. And he was a living reminder for me, every step of the way.
When we headed out for White Sands, New Mexico, all I wanted was to meet a Bataan survivor and finish the marathon. That desire was more than granted. Not only did I meet many survivors, but I marched with one... even for only two miles. On top of that, I did complete the race -which is always a bonus. After 10 years of marching, who knows if Col. Ben will be up for it next year - at nearly 101 years old. Whether he does or does not... the legacy he has left will continue to inspire.