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Yuma Marines get a hands-on history lesson on Bataan death march

By Lance Cpl. Sean Dennison | | March 25, 2010

After a grueling day full of sweat and pain, at least nine Yuma Marines completed the 21st annual Bataan Memorial Death March here March 21, 2010.

The annual 26.2-mile march is held in memory of the nearly 75,000 American and Filipino service members forced to march across 90 miles of the Philippine Bataan peninsula with limited rations and harsh heat while interned by the Japanese in 1942.

Gunnery Sgt. Fred Suniga, Lance Cpl. Anthony Scott, Lance Cpl. Shane Fields and Pfc. Adrian Velasquez from station installation personnel administration center were among those from Yuma who endured debilitating weather, high altitudes and unforgiving terrain to commemorate Bataan survivors.

Velasquez completed the course in 11 hours, 27 minutes, while the other three finished with a time of 12 hours, 20 minutes.

The Marines, marching in the heavy division with packs of at least 40 pounds, stepped off at 8 a.m. with a record-breaking 5,700 other marchers.

At the very beginning of the course, the Marines shook hands with Bataan survivors. One survivor, retired Army Master Sgt. William Eldridge, caught dysentery during Bataan and survived a hurricane while living in a prison camp.

“I see (the march) as a way to pay my respects to these guys,” said Velasquez.

The team planned to walk at a 3-4 mph pace throughout the course, most of which had an elevation of 4,000 feet, but after 9 miles, pain set in, said Suniga.

The 9-mile point marked the start of Mineral Hill, which took the marchers more than a mile above sea level. Though the Marines had two days to acclimatize, the lack of oxygen affected their performance.

The Marines live in Yuma, with an altitude of 197 feet, so the altitude change is going to affect them, said Suniga.

“The climb messed with us physically and psychologically,” Suniga said.

The Marines marched down from Mineral Hill with ruined feet, stopping at the 19-mile mark for medical attention, at which point Velasquez had to go on ahead.

“I couldn’t stop,” said Velasquez. “Every time I stopped and slowed down, I started cramping up.”

“I wanted him to finish in the best time he could,” said Suniga, who, with Scott and Fields, marched with ravaged feet.

Before finishing, the Marines first had to pass through “the sand pits,” a grueling area known for its loose footing.

“It was a mental game,” said Fields. “Every time you thought you had the trail figured out, there was something new.”

Throughout the course, the Marines stopped for rest and medical treatment, but they never quit.

Velasquez completed the course in the desert dusk, while his companions finally finished right before nightfall as some of the last ones to pass the finish line.

Suniga, who took part in the event in the past, said he was not disappointed.

“Two years ago we tried to finish as fast as possible, without taking in the experience,” said Suniga.

All four Marines concurred that the march gave them a deeper understanding of what their fellow service members went through in Bataan.

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