SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE — They gathered just after dawn Saturday.
More than 70 airmen, soldiers and civilians converged on the air base's parade field, each man and woman bearing a weighted pack as part of the Second Annual Scott AFB Bataan Death March Memorial Ruck Challenge, a two-lap, 13-mile march around the base perimeter that raised money for wounded veterans.
Medals were handed out for the top individual and team finishers. But the event was about far more than competition, exercise or doing a good deed.
It was also an opportunity to reflect on the worst atrocity ever inflicted on American military personnel, a catalog of almost unbelievable suffering and cruelty perpetrated by Japanese soldiers on 12,000 American and 64,000 Filipino troops in April 1942 after the surrender of Allied forces in the Philippines.
Army Capt. Tony Zucca showed up Saturday to remember his grandfather Deno Zucca, of Pocahontas. The elder Zucca, an Army sergeant, survived the Death March, and then three subsequent years of disease, starvation and physical and mental abuse at the hands of his Japanese tormentors.
"Obviously he was very mentally and physically tough," Zucca said of his grandfather. "Thank goodness, or I wouldn't be here talking today."
Saturday's marchers carried packs stuffed with canned goods, weight plates, bags of sand. Most walked at varying speeds, with packs in three weight categories: 15- , 25- and 40-pounds. A few hardy souls even jogged most of the way, including eventual overall winner, Senior Airman Raniel Manio, 22.
Manio, who weighs 140 pounds and works in a supply unit, ran most of the way with a pack containing 42 pounds of gear. Finishing with a time of two hours and 42 minutes, Manio said he undertook the march because it "was a challenge."
Manio, whose family hails from the Philippines, said he also wanted to honor the thousands of American and Filipino troops who perished during the 80-mile Death March.
"This was for them," Manio said.
As with any long hike, blisters were a problem for some participants. Maj. Jeff McKamey, who helps oversee base security, walked the last several hundred yards with the boot removed from his right foot because of a large blister that had forced him to stop several times.
Did he consider quitting?
"No way," he said.
Historians are still debating why Japanese troops treated their captives so brutally on Bataan. Consensus, however, formed around the fact the Japanese were unprepared for such an unexpectedly large influx of prisoners after the fall of the island fortress of Corregidor. These problems were also amplified by a breakdown in troop discipline and a Samurai culture that viewed warriors who had surrendered as subhumans unworthy of dignity or compassion.
Survivors of the Death March, which many nicknamed "The Hike," later recounted tales of horrendous brutality, of Japanese soldiers denying food and water to the emaciated and disease-ridden Americans and Filipinos, or bayoneting them to death for sport. Prisoners too sick or exhausted to keep up were bayoneted or beheaded on the spot.
Nearly 1,000 Americans and as many 20,000 Filipinos perished during the Death March.
As bad as the Death March was, however, the POW camps the survivors were herded into were even worse because of disease, malnutrition and sadistic guards. Of the 55,000 American and Filipino troops who survived the Death March, 40,000 of them died within nine months at the camps, according to one historian.
Zucca didn't learn the details of his grandfather's ordeal until he read a book on it.
"When I read that book, I was just in awe at how many people had passed away," Zucca said.
Every step of the way Saturday, Zucca said he thought about his grandfather, who died before Zucca was born.
"It was to honor my family. It means a lot to my aunts," Zucca said. "I'm hurting, but it pales in comparison to what he was going through."
When Zucca weighed his pack Saturday morning at the weigh-in station before the march, it came back at 62 pounds -- 22 pounds more than he had to carry.
"They said you can take some weight off," Zucca said. "I said no. My grandfather didn't get to make his load lighter."
Contact reporter Mike Fitzgerald at firstname.lastname@example.org or 618-239-2533.