For over a dozen years, Bataan Death March survivor Col. Ben Skardon made a pilgrimage from his home in Clemson, South Carolina, to Las Cruces to participate in the Bataan Memorial Death March at White Sands Missile Range (WSMR). COVID kept him from making the journey in 2020 and 2021. On Monday, November 15, 2021, Ben, who had just been given the honorary title of brigadier general and honored in his absence at Clemson’s veterans appreciation football game, passed away at the age of 104.
Well-known at the memorial march for the touching stories told to a packed auditorium of his time as a prisoner of war during World War II as well as walking up to 8.5 miles at the honorary event in his 80, 90s, and 100s, he inspired a group of family and friends to march with him as Ben’s Brigade. The group, clad in Clemson orange and numbering around 30, was easy to spot as they walked the dusty trail with the colonel.
Ben almost didn’t survive Bataan. Like almost all the men, he was malnourished and sick before the infamous 60- to 80-mile Bataan March even began. He explained in his talks at WSMR that while on the march, the Japanese guards sometimes denied them even the one rice ball they were to be fed at the end of the day. Men were killed for trying to slurp water from puddles on the ground — or just for sport. Filipinos who tried to feed the starving men as they passed by were also sometimes killed. Ben had hidden a can of condensed milk and sipped from it secretly at night to keep up his strength.
Once in the POW camp, beriberi, malaria, an eye infection, and other maladies continued to take their toll. Fortunately, he had two Clemson-related factors in his favor: he and two other Clemson graduates, Henry Leitner and Otis Morgan, had found each other and stuck together, and Ben had managed to hide his Clemson class ring from the Japanese. When he was near death, his friends traded his ring for a pullet chicken and a tin of ham, which they made into a soup and fed Ben. They didn’t waste any of the meal, down to the marrow in the chicken bones. The food worked its magic and Ben began to recover.
As the war wore on, the Japanese decided to transport prisoners to Japan and China to serve as slave labor. They packed the men into the holds of ships that were not marked as prisoner transports and our military bombed them, unaware that they were killing their own men. Ben was on two ships that were bombed and sunk before making it China.
Finally, liberation came. Ben weighed less than 100 pounds and was hospitalized for some time before he could come home. Unaware that families back home were going through rationing, he would write his mother letters describing the huge meals he couldn’t wait to enjoy when he arrived. Then, like many veterans, he didn’t talk about his experiences when he returned stateside. The horrors of those years were buried inside, until he was invited to give a talk about it in his 80s. Then he was asked to come to New Mexico to take part in the memorial march, which has long been a place where survivors could share their stories and be honored.
The first year he came to WSMR was 2006 and after the pre-dawn opening ceremony and shaking the hands of hundreds of marchers, he turned to his grandson and said, “Let’s march, too.” And they did. Without preparing for it, the 88-year-old walked five miles until, he said perhaps jokingly, his grandson got tired and wanted to stop. When he came back the next year, he walked with three others the 8.5 miles to the crossroads where medical tent is located. That became his goal for every year and each year he was joined by more and more people: his former Clemson students, members of his church, neighbors, and others. It was, he said, his pilgrimage, his Mecca, where he came to honor Otis, Henry, and the thousands of others who died.
One year, Sixty Minutes Sports came to New Mexico to do a story about Ben and his experiences. Read the transcript here or watch it on Paramount+.
It wasn’t until he neared 100 that Ben accepted a ride for some of the middle miles, still walking the first and last steps on his own. The team at WSMR made it possible for Ben and his brigade to continue to honor the memories of all those who suffered at Bataan.
During COVID, when the memorial march was on hold, a group in Clemson began another effort to honor Ben and seven other Clemson alumni who served at Bataan (all eight survived the march, but Ben was one of only three who survived the years of captivity). Called the Clemson 8, it is a walk that can be done in Clemson or virtually anywhere in the world. All funds raised help pay for a Clemson ROTC team to come to New Mexico to participate in the march. Learn more about it here.
Ben’s ring story is now legend at Clemson, as he told it during the annual ring ceremony. It was recorded and can be seen here.
Ben will be laid to rest Friday, November 19, next to his beloved “debutante bride,” Betsy. For Ben’s Brigade and others who have long admired and respected Ben, the Bataan Memorial Death March will never be quite the same. But marchers wearing Clemson-orange Ben’s Brigade shirts will surely still be sighted on the trail, honoring the man who inspired them.
Written by Cheryl Fallstead
Posted by LasCruces.com