Highland News Leader

These sisters are 61 and 71. They just marched through the desert to honor their father.

Sisters share experience walking in Bataan Memorial Death March

To honor their father and World War II veteran Deno Zucca, two sisters from Pocahontas in Southern Illinois, near Belleville, IL and St. Louis, MO, walked in the Memorial Bataan Death March at White Sands Missile Range in southern New Mexico.
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To honor their father and World War II veteran Deno Zucca, two sisters from Pocahontas in Southern Illinois, near Belleville, IL and St. Louis, MO, walked in the Memorial Bataan Death March at White Sands Missile Range in southern New Mexico.

During the past few months, Pocahontas residents asked the same question over and over again: Where are Tina Aper and Carol Heilig going?

The two sisters were seen walking all over town, at all hours, several times a day, for about a month and a half.

"I would say we probably did walk hundreds of miles," Aper said.

Tina, 61, and Carol, 71, were training for a grueling march that would take them 26 miles over high desert hills in the White Sands Missile Range of southern New Mexico. This year, the sisters planned to be among the thousands of people to participate in the annual Bataan Memorial Death March to remember those who were a part of a dark moment in world history. They were doing it to honor their father, Sgt. Deno Zucca, one of the defenders of Bataan captured during World War II.

On April 9, 1942, approximately 75,000 U.S. and Filipino troops were forced to surrender the Bataan Peninsula on the island of Luzon in the Philippines. The Allied troops were then forced by their Japanese captors to march 65 miles to prison camps. Thousands died along the way. The exact number of dead is lost to history, but the brutality of the Japanese is well documented. The captured soldiers were starved, beaten, and when they could no longer carry on, killed — often by bayonet. Still thousands more who did survive the march died in the prison camps from the same inhumanity and disease.

"It’s a very bad time in history. They don’t like to tell how inhumane people are," Tina said.

Zucca's story

Zucca, who entered the Army in January of 1941, was part of the 31st Infantry.

According to an article the sisters found that was written after their father returned from war, their father was the only Pocahontas veteran who was taken prisoner by the Japanese and lived to tell the tale. The sisters said that his survival was indicator to the family just how strong he was.

"The only ones that survived were the very strong. I don’t know how the rest of them could have the way they treated them," Aper said.

Zucca made the Bataan march with an injured leg. He had been wounded by a bomb fragment at the start of the invasion.

His final destination was the Cabanatuan POW camp. At the camps, soldiers were met with harsh conditions, tormenting work, disease, little food and more cruelty. On average, Zucca told the newspaper writing about him, about 50 people died per day. He knew this because he was assigned to burial duty.

Participants of the Bataan Memorial Death March greet survivors of the original Bataan Death March, which happened during World War II. The memorial March took place on March 25 this year at White Sands Missile Range in southern New Mexico. Provided

Eventually, Zucca was sent to Clark Field. He was forced to work on the landing fields and unload Japanese planes.

In December 1942, Zucca's health started to fail. His right arm was paralyzed for almost a year, and his vision dimmed as a result of malnutrition. After a stay at Bilibid Prison Hospital, Zucca was sent back to Cabanatuan.

After 33 months of being held captive, Zucca's camp was liberated about 8 p.m. on Jan. 30, 1945. Zucca weighed just 118 pounds.

"And he was a tall man. He was like probably around 6 foot," Heilig said.

Zucca's injuries left him with a permanent limp.

The sisters said their father never talked about what happened to him, but there were many indicators that his experience also left wounds that could not be seen.

"He wouldn’t buy a Japanese-made car — ever," Aper said.

The sisters also said that they were not allowed to keep rice in the house.

“I had actually never seen rice,” Heilig said.

Team Zucca
Team Zucca after the Bataan Memorial Death March on March 25 at White Sands Missile Range in southern New Mexico. From left to right is Dawn Zucca-Young, Carol Heilig, Jordan Barker, Tina Aper, Sonya Barker and Tony Zucca (back). The group participated in the event to honor their relative Deno Zucca, who is a World War II veteran and survivor of the original Bataan Death March. Provided

Zucca's sacrifice resulted in a number of military honors, including the Bronze Star and Purple Heart.

He returned home and started a new life as a family man and business owner. He married Hazel Gillespie, opened a local pool hall and had six children.

Zucca passed away July 5, 1958. The sisters said that many Pocahontas residents have approached them to say their father was a good man.

The memorial march

Aper and Heilig said they always considered doing the march, but there has never been "a good time." However, they said that as they grew older, the opportunities to honor their father were becoming fewer.

With some encouragement from their nephew, Tony Zucca, who has participated in the event for several years in memory of his Grandpa Deno, Heilig and Aper decided that this would be the year.

They laced up their shoes, alongside four other family members, and began a walking plan. They trained for about a month and a half and covered a lot of ground in that time — sometimes more than 20 miles in one day.

"And it wasn’t long enough," Aper said.

Team Zucca
The women in Team Zucca pose at the 10 mile marker during the Bataan Memorial Death March at White Sands Missile Range in southern New Mexico. Provided

But they made it to the event in New Mexico on March 25. Donning shirts adorned with their dad's picture, the march began at about 8 a.m. The course ranged from about 4,065 feet above sea level to 5,247 feet. During the 26 miles, there are 13 water stops and six snack breaks. Heilig said that there was no trail, and walkers had to trudge through the desert sand.

"When the girls got up to the top, it was ankle-deep sand," Heilig said.

Many of the participants, including members from their group, did not make it off the course until after dark. As for Aper and Heilig, they made it about halfway.

"I think the elevation got to us," Aper said.

Though the sisters said the experience was grueling, and at times, they even feared collapse, it was worth it to feel connected to their father's experiences.

"It makes me proud — very proud — to be his daughter," Aper said.

The best part of the event was meeting survivors from the original march, they said, as well as other families with loved ones who also suffered the original ordeal.

"Just almost indescribable," Heilig said.

They said they left knowing they had done their part to spread awareness about a time that should never be forgotten. That, they said, was their biggest fear — that one day their father and his comrades' story would fade from the nation's collective conscious.

"Someday, there won’t be anybody to remember him," Heilig said.

But if the march is any indication, that will not be any time soon. According to the Albuquerque Journal, this year the event drew about 8,400 people — the largest crowd it has ever seen.