By Connie Leinbach
How do you do a 26-mile walk on Ocracoke?
Simply from one end of the island to the other, and it was the perfect place for five men to reenact their commitment to honor the Bataan Death March during World War II.
“Got your ibuprofen?” called Phil Dee, the leader of the five-man group who on April 16 landed on Ocracoke at 6 a.m. at the north end of the island, suited up and began walking the 13 miles to Ocracoke village.
The pain pills are a must, Dee said, to keep inflammation and swelling down on these long treks.
Dee’s group is among between 7,000 and 8,000 people across the country registered for this year’s virtual event that can be done anytime between April 9 and 18.
Usually, they travel to White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico to do this hike, which is the site of a memorial to this horrific World War II event.
According to the Bataan Memorial Death March website, On April 9, 1942, tens of thousands of American and Filipino Soldiers were surrendered to Japanese forces and were forced to march more than 60 miles in the scorching heat through the Philippine jungles.
Approximately 10,000 soldiers – about 1,000 of them U.S. soldiers – died or were killed along the march. Those who survived faced the hideous conditions and the brutality of their captors.
Dee, of Kings Mountain and a former tank commander with the U.S. Army, said there are only 10 survivors left.
He said his father was a Navy officer stationed in the South Pacific during World War II and that he had a cousin who had died on one of the “hell ships” that transported POWs.
Closer to home, he said his nephew’s uncle was a Bataan survivor.
“And (since then) he always carried a sandwich with him,” Dee said. “Always.”
When he learned the New Mexico event would be virtual this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic and that marchers could choose their own 26.2-mile site, he thought of Ocracoke.
“The White Sands Missile Range installation is pretty harsh conditions,” he said. They’re unpredictable, he said about the different elevations.
“We’ll do it rain or shine,” he said. “You read about these (Bataan prisoners) and what they endured….”
The New Mexico course is harder, he said, owing to the elevation changes. There’s also a big sand pit around mile 16; then you go around a mountain.
“Seven to eight thousand people do that march,” he said, and all those people urging each other on is motivational.
The Outer Banks can be unpredictable, too.
From Dee’s lodging in Duck, Dare County, the group got up at 3 a.m. to get on the 5 a.m. ferry.
“When you do the one in White Sands, you gotta get up at 3 a.m.,” he said.
The group mostly hiked the road though did venture onto the beach for about nine miles until abandoning the soft sand at Ramp 67.
“Sand is an exponential multiplier,” Dee said.
Accompanying Dee were his son, Jack, 17; Dee’s cousin Mike Phillips of Winston-Salem, Kyle Yancey of Gastonia and Glen Becker of St. Louis, Missouri.
Joining them for a few miles was Joanna Tolson of Buxton, whose great-great uncle died on the Bataan march, Dee said.
Around 11 a.m., the group got to the Ocracoke Variety Store. It was 13 miles according to their GPS.
After they purchased some beverages and food, they paused to check their feet, applying Vaseline and moleskin to sore spots before resuming the hike back to the South Dock.
They got on a late afternoon ferry.
“Eleven hours to complete,” Dee said in a text. “Everyone made it. A few hurting.”