WHITE SANDS MISSILE RANGE, N.M. — Ten years ago, a team from the Wisconsin Army National Guard’s 32nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team finished first in the National Guard Heavy Division of the 20th Annual Bataan Memorial Death March.
Sunday, history repeated itself as another team from the Red Arrow Brigade finished first in the National Guard Heavy Division — and second overall in the Heavy Division — meaning each Soldier marched in uniform and carried at least 35 pounds in their rucksacks for the 26.2-mile course.
The team consisted of members of the 2nd Battalion, 127th Infantry Regiment — Sgt. 1st Class William Kocken, Sgt. Anthony Halloran, Sgt. Brandon Nielsen, Sgt. Justin Potratz and Sgt. William Shade. The team members completed the marathon march within three seconds of each other, with the first team member crossing the finish line at 6 hours, 5 minutes and 8 seconds. The competition requires a team to cross the finish line within a 20-second window.
This achievement is even more impressive considering the team applied late and had approximately three weeks to prepare for one of the most difficult marathons in the United States — and only Kocken had any prior marathon experience. The pace they maintained to win the National Guard Heavy Division was faster than the pace required for the Expert Infantry Badge.
The Bataan Memorial Death March course includes paved roads, dirt and sand trails and gravel, taking an even greater toll on participants. Kocken said special training is required to ward off foot blisters.
“We did some training in soft sand wearing shoes or boots without socks to help build the feet,” he explained. The group took part in long walks and runs ahead of the event, and Kocken also provided equipment and nutrition guidance.
“This being my seventh marathon with a ruck sack on, I’ve figured out many of the tricks to being successful,” Kocken said.
He is no stranger to these kind of endurance events. Nearly a year ago he looked to set a world record by completing a marathon in Green Bay, Wisconsin while carrying a 100-pound rucksack — breaking the old record by more than 26 minutes. He was also a top-20 finisher in the 2014 Best Ranger Competition.
Kocken expressed pride in his teammates, saying the experience revealed to them how much farther they can push themselves.
“In the six hours of the marathon, I got to witness a self-development in four Soldiers that often takes months or years,” he said.
“It was an exciting experience, as I had never done a marathon before,” Potratz said. “Mental toughness was the key to pushing through, seeing as we had done it on little training.”
Halloran said seeing teammates press on through adversity was rewarding.
“We had guys on the team hurting before we even got to the halfway point,” Halloran said. “To watch them push through limits was impressive.”
Nielsen described the Bataan Memorial Death March as “a humbling experience that I will never forget,” while Shade said he was happy to compete in the marathon with that particular group of Soldiers.
“When things began to get real difficult, we worked together to motivate each other to push harder to get to the finish,” Shade said.
The Wisconsin National Guard has a direct connection to the harrowing 80-mile forced march in April 1942 — its Janesville, Wisconsin-based Company A of the 192nd Tank Battalion was part of two multi-state National Guard tank battalions sent to defend the Bataan peninsula in the Philippines shortly after the United States entered World War II. The 99 members of Company A helped fiercely defend the peninsula for more than three months alongside fellow American and Filipino forces until disease, lack of supplies and hunger compelled their surrender to the Imperial Japanese Army April 9, 1942.
Of the approximately 76,000 prisoners involved in the forced march, as many as 650 U.S. service members and between 5,000 and 10,000 Filipinos perished during the march. The death toll would continue to mount at Camp O’Donnell, where they were held until their liberation three years later. Only one third of the Janesville tank company survived.
“They knew at the end of the march they’d have to be POWs, and many still made the walk,” Kocken said of the American and Filipino soldiers in the forced march. “It was important for us to honor their memory and represent the military and our unit in the best and most professional way possible. We were beyond excited to be able to put ourselves through a very small part of what they went through, to gain a greater understanding and appreciation of what those service members truly suffered through.”
Shade said his body was sore after the marathon, which left him with seven blisters and two toenails that might fall out.
“I’m a little more sore than I was at the start,” Nielsen said, “but enlightened to see what I can push myself though mentally.”
Halloran said he was “humbled knowing that we didn’t even do half of what the actual Bataan survivors did. We were in some pain, but I can’t imagine the pain they must have felt.”