TOBYHANNA ARMY DEPOT, Pa. — On April 9, 1942, tens of thousands of U.S. and Filipino soldiers became prisoners of war to the Japanese. The soldiers, deprived of food, water, and medical attention, were forced to march 65 miles through treacherous conditions to confinement camps throughout the Philippines. During what is known as the Bataan Death March, roughly 10,000 Soldiers died — more than 600 were Americans.
Each year since 1989, the Army ROTC Program at New Mexico State University has sponsored the Bataan Memorial Death March, an event meant to honor the march’s survivors and remember the fallen. This year’s 26-mile trek through the high desert terrain of White Sands Missile Range marked the 75th anniversary of the march, a milestone that Capt. Steven Smeltzer (a resident of Tobyhanna) wanted to be a part of.
Smeltzer, Tobyhanna Army Depot’s judge advocate, first heard of the memorial march in his ROTC days. Then, while attending the Judge Advocate Basic Officer Course last year, he met Capt. Grace Preston who had previously completed the 14-mile honorary march and planned to participate in this year’s full-length event.
The duo joined forces and registered last October for the March 17 race.
To prepare for the event, Smeltzer said he bolstered his weekly running by incorporating lengthy mountain hikes.
“I run here [on the depot] anywhere from four to 11 miles three times a week,” he said, adding that 20-mile hikes up and down the rocky Delaware Water Gap terrain was good practice for the course in New Mexico.
Smeltzer and Preston ran the first eight miles of the memorial march and crossed the finish line in under 10 hours.
“The POWs went 65 miles with no food, no water and no rest. I went 26 miles with all the food and water I wanted and did it alongside my friend. It’s in no way a reenactment of what the POWs experienced, but it’s a great way to honor what they persevered through,” he said.
The Bataan Memorial Death March is open to civilians, though a significant portion of the participants are members of military units. Several surviving Bataan prisoners awaited the finishers, providing a humbling finish to an unforgettable experience.
“Seeing the POWs and hearing them speak were truly the highlights of the event,” said Smeltzer. “The hope and inspiration they provide are what motivated me to finish the march.”
Tobyhanna Army Depot is a recognized leader in providing world-class logistics support for command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance systems across the Department of Defense. Tobyhanna's Corporate Philosophy, dedicated work force and electronics expertise ensure the depot is the Joint C4ISR provider of choice for all branches of the Armed Forces and industry partners.
About 3,200 personnel are employed at Tobyhanna, which is located in the Pocono Mountains of northeastern Pennsylvania. Tobyhanna Army Depot is part of the U.S. Army Communications-Electronics Command. Headquartered at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland, the command’s mission is to research, develop, acquire, field and sustain communications, command, control computer, intelligence, electronic warfare and sensors capabilities for the Armed Forces.