CHESAPEAKE, Va. -- "Since I didn't bow, he took the bottle and busted my teeth out," he said. A Japanese sergeant dropped a bottle of Coke where John was supposed to walk, so he picked it up and gave it to him. Afterwards, he was punished for his lack of "respect." John Mims, a Bataan Death March survivor, and approximately 70,000 other Filipino and American prisoners of war endured the torturous march in April, 1942. During the march, POWs were forced to walk 80 miles through the Philippines to the captured Camp O'Donnell. The prisoners were stabbed if they could not keep up, and those who were not bayoneted would most likely die from disease or decapitation before the end of the war. "After they broke my legs with a bulldozer when I tried to escape, I didn't think I would make it," said Mims. "If a naval officer didn't save me before the march to Camp O'Donnell, I would have been right." Stories like Mims' were not uncommon during the Bataan Death March memorial walk April 27, at Dismal Swamp, Chesapeake, Va. Before the memorial ceremony for Mims and his fellow POWs, participants walked 16.6 miles in order to feel a fraction of the pain endured by Service members in the Philippines.
With more than 400 total participants, Langley Air Force Base, Va., was represented in full during the event. Approximately 150 Airmen participated in the walk, with the majority wearing uniforms and boots, and a few also carrying up to 45 pounds of weight. Airman 1st Class Robert Hart, 633rd Medical Group cardiopulmonary technician, was one of the Airmen to embark on the walk. He believed himself fit enough for the journey, but he was surprised once he neared the half-way point. "When we first started, I didn't think it would be so bad," said Hart after walking the first six miles. "Now, I have to admit it feels like more." Towards the end of the walk, groups broke apart due to fatigue, and a few participants threw in the towel early, climbing into golf carts on their way to the finish. Hart and the majority of the Airmen did not give up. Although the physical pain became more prominent, the purpose for the walk became clearer. "My feet are feeling progressively worse; they've practically gone numb," said Hart, shortly before he finished. "I can't believe anyone could have walked 80 miles like this; it's incredible." Hart also said he could really appreciate what veterans endured; he could connect with them on another level outside of simply reading about the march or watching a documentary. For Hart and other walkers who were able to make it 14 miles into the journey, they were greeted by Mims' smiling face and grateful words.
"Thanks for coming out," said Mims, saluting every walker. "We love you, and there is nothing you can do about it!" Many participants stopped their walk and embraced Mims, full of respect and sorrow for the pain he endured. Chief Master Sgt. Tony Levine, 718th Intelligence Squadron superintendent, was one of the participants who expressed gratitude for Mims. "It is truly an honor to meet you," said Levine. "Thank you for your service, sir, and God bless you." The scene at the finish line contained a mixture of expressions. Airmen sat down wherever there was an open space, bandaging bloody heels or rubbing out stiff toes. After a respite, participants gathered a top a shaded knoll to show their appreciation for their fellow walkers, event organizers and especially the veterans. Attendees had the opportunity to take photos with Mims and other veterans, ask questions about their experience and learn more about the purpose behind their 16.6-mile trek through the Virginian countryside. Before he took shelter from the bright, mid-day sun, Mims shared the true reason he takes time to attend different events for Bataan Death March survivors and other veterans. Had Mims not been saved before the end of the war, he would have certainly lost his life due to starvation, exhaustion or at the tip of a bayonet. For his brothers in arms who would not see home again, he shared a few words. "I lost a lot of buddies in the Philippines. I do this in honor of all the people who died and for those who made it back and have since passed," said Mims. He then took a pause, swallowed hard and turned a misty gaze to the sky. "I love 'em."