In 2011, somewhere on a remote military base in southern New Mexico, I was 500 yards away from checking an important item off of my bucket list. But before I could pat myself on the back, I had to finish puking.
I was in the homestretch of the Bataan Memorial Death March Marathon. The grueling event is aptly described as “26 miles of high desert, 26 miles of pure perseverance.”
It honors American and Filipino service members who defended the Philippine Islands during World War II. Approximately 75,000 of these troops were surrendered to invading Japanese forces in 1942. The captured troops were force-marched 65 miles, under harsh conditions, to Japanese prison camps. Thousands died along the route, which became known as the Bataan Death March.
John Mims experienced the Bataan Death March firsthand. On the day before we participated in the Memorial version, my Dad and I met Mims.
He addressed a standing room crowd on the military base. Mims spoke softly. Sometimes he lost his train of thought. When it happened, he poked fun at himself. He was nearly 90 years old.
In 1938, Mims was too young to join the Army. But he was a teenager living on his own – both parents were dead – and he was hungry. So, he fudged his age on his recruitment papers.
At first, for young soldiers like Mims, assignment to the Philippines must have felt like a tropical vacation. There was plenty of food, plenty of sunshine and plenty of friendly girls. Things changed drastically when the Japanese invaded.
The prisoners’ quarters were numbered. Those who were healthy enough to work lived in hut #1. When health started to wane, prisoners were moved to huts #2 and #3. The men were moved to hut #4 to die.
Mims suffered a broken jaw, a broken back and a broken neck during captivity. Eventually, he found himself in hut #4. He was basically a dead man.
Except he survived. Mims lived to tell his story, over and over, so that those who died would be remembered.
My Dad and I will participate in the Bataan Memorial Death March again in 2017. Mims won’t be there. He died recently at 94.
Judging from Facebook comments following his death, his plan worked. A humble man with great courage told his story, so that others would not be forgotten. They are remembered, and so is Mims.