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Camp Pendleton Marine marches in remembrance of Bataan Death March

Against the backdrop of dark early morning Temecula skies at 5:30 a.m., Retired Marine Sergeant Major Emilio Hernandez embarked on a 26-mile journey commemorating The Bataan Memorial Death March from Capt. Aaron J. Contreras Memorial Park in Temecula. The march is to give honor and tribute to the veterans both alive and deceased who braved the events of 1942, and in particular the Bataan Death March that took place in the Philippines during World War II.

This is the 13th annual march for Hernandez who marches locally each year for the virtual event, while thousands march at White Sands, New Mexico. Last year the Las Cruces Sun newspaper reported that about 5,000 arrived for the annual march. In 2019, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, there were 10,000 participants reported.

In 2019, former POW Valdemar De Herrera, age 103, reported to be the last survivor of the Bataan Death March, was present at the opening ceremony and was recognized by WSMR Commander Brig. Gen. Eric Little.

"While you're marching through the high desert this morning, likely into the afternoon, remember those who were forced to participate in a very different march 81 years ago, many to the death. When your feet hurt, knees, hips, whatever the body part, think about them. Use that as fuel to reinforce your remembrance of these great heroes. We, everyone marching, really are privileged with the opportunity to honor sacrifice today," Little said.

Why does Hernandez do this every year? He said, "For many reasons, but the main one, because I have the privilege to do it." He shared the importance of remembering the sacrifices of those who paved the way before us. He recounted the brutal conditions of the Bataan Death March. "The rain today reminds us of the unpredictable and harsh conditions faced by those who marched through Bataan," he remarked, acknowledging the rain as both a physical challenge and a poignant reminder of the hardships endured by the prisoners of war.

Hernandez continued, "If you read about the Bataan Death March, I mean, that's exactly what it was. It was a march where the Japanese moved U.S. Marines and Army prisoners of war, Filipino Marines as well as thousands of Filipino civilian prisoners of war and some Air National Guard. They moved them for about 60 miles through a triple canopy jungle. Some were very malnourished, some were sick, had malaria, you name it. They literally were marching them to death. It got to the point where they were very, very slow as I was, here in some of the hills, but what happened to them is that the Japanese would stack them in three and use a bayonet to kill three in one stroke so that they could save bullets."

The American and Filipino forces had surrendered after seven months of fighting. There were reported to be as many as 75,000. "So I do this because I can, because of men like them," Hernandez said, while pointing to his neighbor, veteran Michael Higgins, who made the trek with him that day, carrying a flag as well. "Men like him who paved the road for our freedoms and our liberty. So my pains don't come close to their families - the Gold Star families and also law enforcement."

Marching with Hernandez and Higgins was Higgins' guide dog, two other neighbors Lily and Djan Stekovic, as well as an unnamed person who joined somewhere en route with their dog. Hernandez's wife Nary Hernandez, is a nurse. She provided support and encouragement throughout the day and refreshments and a cake at the end of the march.

Hernandez spoke of supportive members in the community being crucial as well. "You have nurses, you have doctors that put others before themselves. I would like to bring the community together because again, everybody's important. I would like to one day get to where we come together and do something bigger than us."

He shared how gratifying it is, during the march, for people to be waving at him from their cars or maybe walking alongside for a little while in a show of support. He hopes to grow the march into a community event that transcends individual participation, bringing together civilians, veterans and active-duty military personnel in a shared act of remembrance and respect. He expressed a desire to bring the community together, to do something bigger than oneself, and to honor not just the military but also those in public service who put others before themselves.

The interview revealed Hernandez's deep military background and his extensive service, which has shaped his views on leadership, duty, and the importance of remembering the sacrifices of others. His early years started at Camp Pendleton for 11 years to his challenging but rewarding time at Twenty-Nine Palms, and his service as a drill instructor back at Pendleton as well as the chief instructor for the pre-Sniper School.

During the march, Hernandez carries a 35-lb rucksack filled with personal items and symbols of remembrance, including a flag flown in Iraq to honor Marines he knew and lost, and bullet casings to represent their service. "It's got a story, and it's my story, and I show that story," he said. "So I take her (the flag) everywhere that I go. I have three casings of bullets in there to represent their service near and dear to me."

His conversation also touched on the broader experiences of those who serve in the military, from the places they've been stationed to the challenges and triumphs of their service. The importance of connection, whether through a honk of support from a passerby or the shared experiences of service, was a recurring theme, highlighting the human aspect of military service and the enduring bonds it creates, as opposed to just connection through a phone or electronic device.

In sharing his story and the reasons behind his annual march, Retired Marine Sergeant Major Emilio Hernandez illustrates the power of remembrance and the impact of individual actions to honor the past. His dedication to commemorating the Bataan Death March and ensuring that the sacrifices of those who suffered are never forgotten serves as a poignant reminder of the costs of freedom and the resilience of the human spirit.

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