The opportunity to meet briefly with these men and thank them for their incredible sacrifice is always a highlight of the event and never fails to inspire those who get that opportunity.
Each year their numbers continue to decline. But to have so many survivors come back year after year is a testament to the memorial march and how much it means to them.
The Army ROTC Department at New Mexico State University began sponsoring the memorial march in 1989 to mark a page in history that included so many native sons and affected many families in the state. In 1992, White Sands Missile Range and the New Mexico National Guard joined in the sponsorship and the event was moved to the missile range.
The event has grown steadily since then, attracting marchers from throughout the country. Some like the Baldonado family, which plans to have 80 members in attendance this year come to pay tribute to ancestors taken capture in April 1942 when U.S. troops serving in the Philippines were surrendered to Japanese troops.
But most simply want to pay their respects to the few remaining survivors left while there is still time.
The Battle of Bataan and the brutality of the forced march and imprisonment that followed will always be an important part of our nation's history.
The sacrifice of those who perished along the march, or later in prison camps or aboard "hell ships" bound for Japan, will never be forgotten.
Neither will the courage and perseverance of those who survived.
Many of those surrendered were members of the 200th and 515th Coast Artillery of the New Mexico National Guard.
"On December 8, 1941, when the Japanese unexpectedly attacked the Philippine Islands, the first point bombed was Ft. Stotsenberg. The 200th Coast Artillery, assigned to defend the Fort, was the first unit, under The General of the Army Douglas MacArthur, to go into action defending our flag in the Pacific," Gen. Jonathan Wainwright said in 1945. "First to fire, and last to lay down their arms! A fitting epitaph for a valiant Brigade which fought standing firmly in its appointed place and facing forward to the enemy."
The memorial march has all the trappings of a well-organized marathon or hike. There are two courses to chose from, one 26.2 miles and another 14.2 miles, with aid stations along the way.
It is the Bataan survivors who put it all into perspective.
Las Cruces Sun-News, March 17