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Nearing 75th anniversary of Bataan Death March, Jackson man finishes memorial march

JACKSON -- In a personal test of endurance, more than 6,300 civilians and military members took part in the 28th annual Bataan Memorial Death March at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico March 19. Among the participants was 19-year-old Justin...

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Justin Petersen (front) of Jackson hikes up the paved trail on the 26.2-mile Bataan Memorial Death March in the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico March 19. (Special to the Daily Globe / Steve Howard)

JACKSON - In a personal test of endurance, more than 6,300 civilians and military members took part in the 28th annual Bataan Memorial Death March at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico March 19. Among the participants was 19-year-old Justin Petersen of Jackson.

Petersen was lured to the event after seeing a Facebook post by friend Sam Moenning of Hayfield, who was interested in participating.

“He sent a message to all of his friends that like to lift (weights) and were interested,” Petersen shared. “A few replied, but I was the only one able to go.”

The memorial march is comprised of a 26.2-mile course through hilly terrain and desert sands, and as difficult as it sounds, it pales in comparison to the actual Bataan Death March taken by American prisoners of war during World War II.

On April 9, 1942, after the U.S. surrendered the Bataan Peninsula on the Philippine island of Luzon, American soldiers were forced to walk 65 miles to POW camps on the south end of the peninsula. The march was grueling in tropical heat, made worse by a lack of food and water and beatings by Japanese guards. Thousands of troops either died or were killed along the way by their captors.

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Next week marks the 75th anniversary of the Bataan Death March. Five survivors of the march - World War II veterans in their 90s - attended the March 19 memorial march in New Mexico. One, 99-year-old Ben Skardon, walked 8.5 miles of the course.

Petersen, a 2016 graduate of Jackson County Central and a member of the 257th Military Police in the Minnesota National Guard unit at Monticello, thought he was prepared.

The Bataan Memorial Death March, however, will test even the most physically- and mentally-fit.

The two Minnesota men signed up in the civilian heavy division, which meant they had to carry a minimum 35-pound ruck (backpack) through the course. Many repeat participants packed their ruck with items they could donate at the end - things like rice, beans, cat litter and pet food.

Petersen, though, was unfamiliar with the process. He’d chosen to put a log chain in his ruck to meet the weight requirements.

“One tough thing was crossing the finish line and then having another eighth of a mile to get to the car,” he said. “You can’t throw away log chains, but people who packed food could donate it at the finish line.”

Mental toughness As a National Guardsman, Petersen experienced ruck marching while completing basic and advanced individual training.

“We did as much as 10 miles,” he said. “Our packs were 36 pounds. We carried a rifle and some other gear.”

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Since returning home to Jackson, the ruck training was replaced with running and weightlifting. Peterson is working through the Pennsylvania Strongest Man program that includes bench, squat and overhead press. He also does push-ups and sit-ups.

To better prepare himself for the next Bataan Memorial Death March, Petersen said he will need to do more ruck-specific training.

“I hadn’t pushed as much on the endurance side,” he said. “You can train, but you reach a point where it becomes mental.”

During the march, that point was around Mile 18 for both Peterson and Moenning. The two had stayed together until Mile 12 or 13, when Moenning advanced while ascending a large hill.

“Out to Mile 12 or 14 it was mostly just like another tough workout,” Petersen said. “Between Mile 14 and 18 it started to get pretty tough.

“Physically I knew I had it in me - I knew I was good,” he added. “After Mile 18, it was just that mental toughness. If you can do it mentally, you can do it physically - whether you think it’s in you or not.”

As Petersen passed Mile 18, 20 and 22, he saw a lot of medical personnel on hand to treat participants for heat exhaustion and other ailments. He kept telling himself that no matter how much his body hurt, his mind was strong - his determination pushed him forward.

What had been 16- to 16.5-minute miles when they started, though, had stretched out to 22-minute miles at the end. The temperature, which was 55 degrees when they began their march, had climbed to 90 degrees in the afternoon.

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The combination gravel and sand trails were difficult to maneuver, adding to the challenge and sapping participants of their energy.

“Over half the course was probably about two inches deep of sand, and around Mile 19-20 there was a mile-long sand pit that was probably 4- to 5 inches deep,” Petersen said.

With Moenning’s advance halfway through the course, he finished at 9 hours, 11 minutes - less than a half-hour ahead of Petersen’s time of 9 hours, 37 minutes.

“We finished fourth and fifth out of Civilian Heavy, 19 and under,” Petersen said.

There are multiple categories in the march, from light (no ruck) to heavy; military, ROTC or civilian; and also age divisions. There is also an honorary march, which is a 14.2-mile course.

“A lot of military, including myself, registered as civilians because the military division was for people wearing a uniform,” Petersen said. “I thought it was going to be plenty hot without wearing full camo.”

Also, since Moenning isn’t officially military - he’s enlisting in the Navy - he had to participate in the civilian march.

Incredible experience Participants in the memorial march heard stories from World War II heroes who survived the Bataan Death March during a special program March 18. There were so many attendees, Petersen couldn’t get inside the hall to hear the speeches.

“I got to meet one of the survivors and shake his hand,” he said.

Petersen also met individuals participating in the memorial march who had done it as many as eight times.

“I intend to do it again,” he said. “It was really challenging. Everything hurt by the end, but it’s one of those things to memorialize the men who fought and died.”

Petersen will begin classes this fall at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. He is currently enrolled in online classes and pursuing a major in agriculture communications. He’s the son of Chad and Julie Petersen of Jackson.

By the numbers  28th annual Bataan Memorial Death March

March 19, 2017

  • 7 a.m. Start time
  • 7,200 registered participants
  • 6,304 started the march
  • 5,598 completed the march
  • 800 no-shows
  • 26.2-mile course
  • 14.2-mile honorary course
  • 550 medical volunteers
  • 1,200 other volunteers
  • 27,510 pounds of food collected
  • 10:14 p.m. Last participant, a Wounded Warrior, crosses finish line

Related Topics: BATAAN DEATH MARCH
Julie Buntjer became editor of The Globe in July 2021, after working as a beat reporter at the Worthington newspaper since December 2003. She has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism from South Dakota State University.
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