The 2017 Bataan Memorial Death March has reached record registration at record speed this year. In 28 years, this is the first year registration had to close early due to the event reaching capacity of 7,000 participants. In 2016 there were over 6,500 participants, the record at the time. Hotel reservations and RV reservations are also booked with a long waiting list. The March 19 event has already broken record of participation, meaning not only an increase of participants but also an increase of spectators.
"We've increased our security posture this year," said Directorate of Emergency Services Capt. Tom Benavidez. "We've spent a lot of time developing an overall concept of operation and we're looking forward to the event. We will do our best to accommodate everyone and make this a safe event."
Now in its 28th year, this 75th commemorative memorial march honors the Soldiers who defended the islands of Luzon, Corregidor and the harbor-defense forts of the Philippines at the onset of World War II. They fought in a malaria-infested region, surviving on half- or quarter-rations, with little or no medical care, outdated equipment and virtually no air support. On April 9, 1942, tens of thousands of American and Filipino Soldiers surrendered to Japanese forces. They were marched for days in the scorching heat through the Philippine jungles. Thousands died. Those who survived the forced march faced years of hardship in prisoner-of-war camps.
The 26.2-mile Bataan Memorial Death March is set on the hilly, desert terrain, with sometimes unpredictable weather. Marchers compete in teams or individually. Some compete in the "heavy" division carrying 35-pound rucksacks. There is also a 13.1 mile non-competitive honorary route.
"2017 marks the 75th year of the struggle the Bataan Survivors endured," said WSMR Garrison Command Sgt. Maj. William Wofford. "Of the 75,000, Soldiers surrendered to the Japanese, 10,000 died, this had a huge impact on New Mexico families. There were 1,816 men identified of the, 200th and 515th Coast Artillery. Of that number 829 men were to never return home."
The Army ROTC Department at New Mexico State University began sponsoring the Bataan Memorial Death March in 1989. Three years ago a cadet was assigned to each survivor who attends the event. The concept for the Bataan Memorial Death March started with a young ROTC cadet, now Maj. Ray Pickering, and a bet over pizza, Wofford said. That first official memorial march was about 22 miles long, starting at NMSU and heading east through the Organ Mountains, ascending Baylor Pass. The march was moved to WSMR in 1992, because of insurance and liability issues.
"A part of my responsibility is to ensure the march is executed with professionalism, dignity and respect," Wofford said. "For most people their pride won't let them quit. As long as there is a wounded warrior on the course and they are still making progress, we will keep the course open to allow them to complete."
Last year the last marcher to complete the course was a wounded warrior who crossed the finish line in 10 hours.
Marchers and spectators should expect to see working dogs throughout the course. Both military working dogs and civilian K-9 units will be on duty at the event. Those who will be bringing their pets are asked to keep their pets leashed at all times. It is also important working dogs are not to be approached or pet while on duty, Benavidez said.
"Please only approach the dogs if their handler allows it," he said.
Surrounding federal, State, local, and military law enforcement agencies will be on hand during the event. Border Patrol, New Mexico Game and Fish Department, Doña Ana County Reserve Officers, New Mexico State University Police as well as their Reserve Officers' Training Corps., NMSU Air Force ROTC, NM State Police, Las Cruces Police Department, New Mexico Mounted Patrol, 93rd Military Police Battalion from Fort Bliss, Texas, and the 49th Wing Security Forces Squadron from Holloman Air Force Base will all play a role in security the day of the event.
"We're always ready and able to assist our surrounding agencies," said Las Cruces Police Department Public Information Officer Dan Trujillo in an interview last year. "We always look forward to it, especially this event because of its significance."
Benavidez said his department will be working longer hours to ensure the safety of the community and the event. Benavidez and his team have been gearing up for the event for the past six months.
All participants coming through the gate should have all windows in the vehicle rolled down in order to ensure officers can see the individuals, Benavidez said. There may be a situation where guard dogs will alert them to something in a vehicle. The situation will be dealt with at the scene and may cause traffic delays.
"We want to ensure that we do all we can to provide a safe and secure environment to the participants and the community," Benavidez said.
If a participant or spectator has a weapon it must be declared and registered before the event, according to Benavidez. The weapons that are registered will be kept unloaded and placed into a compartment of the vehicle that is inaccessible to the driver and passengers of the vehicle. Ammunition for the firearms must be transported in a compartment or area separate from the weapon. When driving a vehicle like a pickup truck, the firearms must be unloaded and transported in the passenger compartment, out of sight, with ammunition in a separate area of the vehicle. Anyone attempting to enter the installation with a weapon, without prior approval will be denied access. The Concealed-Carry law states that the licenses and permits do not apply to military installations.
"No one is allowed to carry a concealed weapon on the installation," Benavidez said.
The RV dry camp, park campground and Bell Gym sleeping area are on a first-come-first-serve basis. The RV dry camp will be located near the old housing area near Volunteer Park. Participants and spectators can begin to park their RVs beginning Wednesday, March 16, afternoon. Campers can set-up their tents in any grassy area near the park at the same time the dry camp opens up. Outdoor Recreation, Recreation Assistant Anthony Lutrell said food trucks will be available in the Volunteer Park area after the Frontier Club and Roadrunner Lanes close in the afternoon. The Bell Gym, gym offers hostel style sleeping arrangements that a Bell Gym representative said can hold between 200 to 250 people. Participants staying at the gym and campgrounds are able to use showers inside the Aquatics Center. The Aquatics Center will be closed the week of Bataan, but the showers will be available for participants and spectators.
Residents are also asked to prepare for cannons that will be going off between 6:30 and 7:30 a.m. to mark the start of the march and announce the beginning of each division.
To register your weapon for the event, call Phyllis Quintana at (575) 678-7675.