“Be positive,” Bataan Death March survivor Ben Steele advised a group of Army ROTC cadets and instructors Thursday before they travel to New Mexico to participate in a marathon Sunday honoring the 1942 march.
Steele, who is 98, has traveled several times to New Mexico for the White Sands Missile Range Bataan Memorial Death March. The last time was in 2013, when he was photographed with a group of 18 military veterans who survived the deadly 60-mile march in the Philippines during World War II.
“I wish I could be there with you,” Steele told the ROTC group.
Sgt. 1st Class Jonathan Karns assured Steele, “You will be there with us.”
Karns said the group plans to shoot video and take photos and share them with Steele when they return.
During the half-hour meeting with the ROTC group, Steele talked about the hardships he and other American and Filipino soldiers endured on the march.
“I had one sock, so whenever I found water, I rinsed it out. You’ve got to keep your feet clean and as dry as possible. I learned that in hay fields in the summer in Montana when it’s real hot,” Steele said.
Steele’s wife, Shirley, prompted Steele to tell the soldiers where he got his sock.
“I took it off a dead soldier,” Steele said.
It was a somber moment that Steele quickly broke up with his characteristic smile and encouragement.
“You guys will do just fine. Just don’t give up,” Steele said.
Three Billings ROTC cadets and three supervisors will make their first trip to the memorial marathon, which originated in New Mexico in 1989. The march is a marathon length of 26.2 miles in the hills and sand and heat of New Mexico. It has been held every year except 2003 when it was canceled because Operation Iraqi Freedom required extensive deployment among the units who usually support the march.
Molt rancher Amber Nordahl is also traveling to New Mexico to participate in the memorial march as a competitive runner.
She plans to meet her son, Zach Nordahl, a captain in the Air Force. Nordahl met Steele about seven years ago when the late Dewey Hanson helped her son get into the Air Force Academy.
“I told Zach, ‘If you get into the Air Force Academy, I’m going to get into the Boston Marathon,’” Nordahl said.
She started training and ended up competing in the Boston Marathon in 2009. Nordahl arranged to get a poster of one of Steele’s realistic paintings from the Bataan Death March to have him sign it and present to the ROTC unit. She also printed a T-shirt with Steele’s artwork on the back and with the slogan on front: “Running 26.2 honoring Ben Steele Bataan Survivor.”
The ROTC group, dressed in their camouflage fatigues, shook Steele's hand and had their photo taken with him.
"This is kind of surreal," said ROTC cadet Kevin Stein.
The Billings ROTC group raised $3,000 at its annual auction and dinner in January to travel to New Mexico. The group, which includes students from Montana State University Billings and Rocky Mountain College, intends to march the 26.2 miles with backpacks of around 30 pounds.
When they expressed their nervousness about dealing with the heat and the sand, Shirley quipped, "One year, we met a group of Girl Scouts who did it."
That got a big laugh from the group.
Major Adam Karlin, who heads the local ROTC group, said the fact that his cadets raised their own money to march in honor of World War II vets, including Steele, shows their depth of character. Karlin had an opportunity to march in the marathon event when he was a ROTC cadet at the University of Montana almost two decades ago, but he had injured his knee.
“For us, we’re going to go down there to march, but also have some fun,” Karlin said. “For these veterans like Ben, it was a life and death struggle.”