World War II veteran inspires ROTC in death march

By Gus Bode

Deckline:Tired, blistered and sore from a 26-mile march through the desert, nine members of the SIUC ROTC made the drive home from New Mexico yesterday after finishing the Bataan Memorial Death March.

The memorial march is a 26.2-mile march through the White Sands Missile Range to honor the soldiers who defended the Philippines Islands from the Japanese during World War II. During the original march, more than 70,000 American and Filipino prisoners were captured by Japanese forces and made to march 90 miles from Camp O’Donnell to Camp Cabanatuan at the Bataan border. Nearly 25,000 prisoners died on the march.

In preparation for the march, the ROTC cadets went to Pickneyville last week and the home of 99-year-old World War II veteran Albert Brown. Brown is one of the survivors of the real Bataan death march. As the cadets filed into his house, Brown welcomed them at the door.


“Where are your guns?” Brown joked as he shook everyone’s hand and ushered them in.

Inside, Brown sat on his couch with the cadets gathered around and told about the war and how the march came about. Brown’s eyes went misty as he sat talking about the people he saw slaughtered by Japanese soldiers. He was in his 30s at the time, and most of the other soldiers were younger. He said it was hard to see all those men die at such a young age.

“On the death march, if you fell out, well, you know what happened,” a teary-eyed Brown said. “If a Japanese officer was there, he took a big samurai sword and cut your head off. If a regular soldier was there, they would shoot you.”

Brown talked of the 100-plus degree temperatures they endured and how the camps at which they stopped would have only one water pump to accommodate 12,000 American soldiers. He said a small ball of rice was the only sustenance they would receive on a daily basis.

“Nobody can say that rice isn’t good,” Brown said. “It kept 12,000 people alive.”

As the cadets sat and listened to Brown’s story, the march they had ahead of them became more significant. Michael Ferraro, a freshman from Binghamton studying administration of justice, said hearing Brown talk made his march more personal.

“It puts a face on each story,” Ferraro said. “You hear all these stories, and seeing him really puts it in perspective.”


Each of the cadets had their photo taken with Brown to carry with them as they marched.

On Sunday morning, the cadets began marching. With their visit with Brown still fresh in their minds, they made their way across the desert. Team leader Travis Wilson, a senior from Benton studying history, said thinking about the men in the real march made it easy.

“When we felt like we couldn’t go anymore, we would just pull out that picture of Mr. Brown, and it would remind us why we were there,” Wilson said. “It was definitely a motivating factor.”

Two years ago, a team of ROTC cadets finished the march in 10 hours. The team this year knew they could better that mark, and they did, shattering the old mark by two hours.

“Our goal was to No. 1 finish and No. 2 finish as a team,” Wilson said. “We knew with the individuals we had, and the training we put in, that we could be under 10 hours.”

Though the temperatures never got much over 70 degrees while the team marched, the distance and the sand proved to be adversaries of the group. Wilson said no member of the team was without pain on the ride home. He said he couldn’t imagine how the men in the original march made it through without the training he and his team had.

“It was a total body blowout,” Wilson said. “Every member of the team can barely walk. Our feet are just blisters.”

In the end, Wilson said the team was glad they could finish as a team and pay their respects to the soldiers of the Bataan death march. Though his body was broken down and his legs barely usable, Wilson came home happy about the experience.

“It gave us the chance to give back just a little bit with what we can do to show our appreciation,” Wilson said. “Also, it built us as a team. Overall it was a great experience.”

Reporter William Ford can be reached at [email protected]