In early February of 1945, the war in Europe was wrapping up. By May, the Germans had surrendered, and there was "a hot time in the town of Berlin when the Yanks [went] marching in.” The jubilation of the freed countries of Europe was unbounded.
But for Ben Skardon and the remaining veterans of Bataan, it looked hopeless. After surviving a brutal march, cattle cars of death, multiple Japanese prisoner camps, disease, and starvation, by early December 1944, Ben Skardon and 1600 other POWs had been crammed into the hold of the Japanese passenger/cargo ship, Oryoku Maru.
En route to Japan, the Oryoku Maru was attacked by US Navy planes from the USS Hornet. Unmarked and unidentifiable as a POW ship, the Navy planes had no idea they were bombing their own men. The ship was sunk and 270 POWs were killed. Loaded onto another cargo ship, the Enoura Maru, Skardon and his fellow POWs were again hit by friendly fire in the harbour of Takao, Formosa, killing another several hundred men.
Among those killed was Otis Morgan, a man to whom Skardon owed his life. Morgan and another man named Henry Leitner had worked tirelessly to keep Skardon alive when he lay sick and dying of starvation and disease. Trading what few valuables they had left (including Skardon’s Clemson Ring), they managed to bribe the guards for the necessary items to keep their friend from death’s door.
When Skardon succumbed to the tortuous sufferings brought on by Beriberi (a vitamin deficiency disease which causes nerve inflammation and heart failure), Morgan and Leitner spent hours around the clock wiping his eyes and rubbing his feet to help reduce the pain. During a time when it was “every man for himself” to survive, the three men had stuck together to keep each other alive.
But even their close friendship could not prevent Morgan from becoming one of the hundreds of casualties of the Hell Ships. When the ship docked on January 30th, of the 1,619 POWs brought aboard in the Philippines, hardly 500 had survived the barbaric 47 day crossing.
“Survival, Loyalty, and Faith,” Ben Skardon told an auditorium of people gathered to hear him speak 76 years later. "Survival: To maintain life, to endure. Loyalty: To family, to friends, to country. Faith: In the fellow man and the Almighty God." Those were the keys to his existence during the unthinkable experiences he had endured as a prisoner of the Japanese.
Despite all odds, Ben Skardon (now a retired Army Colonel) had survived. He had survived one of the greatest tragedies in American history. But why had he survived when so many others had died?
In his speech two weeks ago at White Sands Missile Range, he explained how he never gave up. Once a man had given up the hope and fire inside of him to survive, Skardon explained, it was very rare that that man would live to see another sunrise.
To live without Hope is to Cease to live.
~ Fyodor Dostoyevsky
The loyalty of his friends and to his country had also kept him alive. Morgan and Leitner never got to see their homeland again, but because of the sacrifices they made for their friend, their names will never be forgotten - not by Ben Skardon.
On March 18, 2018, for the 11th time, 100 year old (“100 and 7/10," he corrects me) Ben Skardon made his annual pilgrimage to White Sands Missile Range for the Bataan Memorial Death March. After a weekend meeting the marchers, encouraging them for the difficult task they were about to undertake, and sharing personal experiences from Bataan, Col. Skardon set out on his own Bataan Memorial March.
He doesn’t have to. After all, he is over 100 years old… but he feels obligated. An obligation that is 76 years old. Leitner and Morgan did not have to exert themselves to save Skardon’s life, but they did. And now, Col. Skardon feels it is a small thing to march in their honor.
In past years, Col. Skardon has marched 8.5 miles of the rugged desert terrain. Nearly 7 of those miles are dubiously sandy, uneven, and difficult for the average person, much less a senior. But Col. Skardon has been defying the term “senior” for years, continually proving the mettle which helped him to survive his years of imprisonment.
This year, as the members of Ben’s Brigade gathered for the annual pre-march dinner, I asked a few of them if the Colonel would be going the whole 8.5 miles. “It’s hard to know… but we’re hoping for 3 miles” was the general response.
“I’m going to go as far as I can,” the Colonel told me.
The next morning, the marchers, the veterans, and Ben’s Brigade gathered for the opening ceremonies. It was an electric atmosphere. The Bataan Memorial Death March is no easy marathon, and every one of the participants either knew that or figured it out pretty quick. Having completed the whole 26.2 miles last year, I can tell you the feeling among the marchers is just enough excitement to get them up in the morning, but just enough nerves to question the sensibility of the venture they are about to embark upon.
But all those nerves disappear when, moments before they cross the start line, the marchers are greeted by Bataan Death March survivors, ready to shake their hands and wish them well before heading into the New Mexico desert. It is an utterly inspiring sight. Over and over again my throat choked and I teared up as I watched the marchers, wounded warriors, ROTC, active military, veterans, and civilians pause to shake the hands of the very men who were the reason for this memorial march.
“Good job. We’ll see you in 26 miles!” The veterans would say, and off the marchers would go.
When the last man crossed the start-line, Ben’s Brigade formed up.
“Oosh,” said Colonel Skardon, a command his Japanese guards would holler out for the prisoners to “keep moving.”
At mile 1, we halted. “If you want to cheat,” said the Colonel in his refined southern accent, “You can’t. We’ve got the record right here.” The Colonel says that if you take a photo with each mile marker, it's proof that you didn't cheat.
By mile 2, we began to hit the sand.
Mile 3, the sand was beginning to get rough. The Colonel made his mile stop and announced, “We’ll wait here 30 seconds. One, two, three, four, five, Oosh!” We continued.
Never a complaint, occasionally throwing out a piece of humorous advice, or offering a witty comment, Colonel Skardon pressed on.
“The voices spoke,” he said, as he rested a hand on the mile 4 marker, “but I have prevailed. I’m gonna try one more mile… before I take the night.” He added with a twinkle, “You know what that means? If you get into that damn automobile, you get bayoneted…. but me, I’m the commander. You’ll be in front of me.” His announcement complete, with a chuckle and a mischievous grin, he ordered the well-known command, “Oosh!”
After completing 5 miles, Colonel Skardon took a seat in the car that followed behind us over the sandy desert terrain. He left us with this parting, “I have some urgent business to take care of, but I’ll join you at 7.”
Before too long we were re-joined by the Colonel, and by the time we reached the finish-line, he had completed nearly 7 miles. I can’t quite tell you what an incredible feeling it was to watch 100.5 year old Bataan Death March survivor (or should I say “year-young” after the feat he completed) cross his personal finish line. Inspiring? Oh 100%.
During the march, I had contemplated the life of this man, listened to stories from his family and friends, and watched him put one foot in front of the other, unfaltering in spirit.
Despite age, memories, a full life, this man who had marched the same trail and endured the same horrors of Bataan which took my great uncle's life had just completed another yearly pilgrimage, “as a tribute and honor to my Clemson friends,” Otis Morgan and Henry Leitner. “Two and a half years in the prison camp and we became like brothers." For his brothers he marched.
A true testimony to his character and the 3 rules he had given us the day before, “Survival, Loyalty, and Faith.”
For someone like Colonel Skardon, “inspiring” just begins to describe him. But marching with him was inspiring. To me, to the members of Ben’s Brigade, and to every single one of the marchers who shook his hand.
Moments after Colonel Skardon led the group past the finish line, Ben’s Brigade broke out into the Clemson Cadence:
Fight Tigers, Fight Tigers, Fight, Fight, Fight!
A most appropriate ending for this memorable day.