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Marching to honor the memory . . . Michele (Potter) Marshall
of Las Cruces, NM, prepares to begin the honorary route
of the Bataan Memorial Death March at the White Sands Missile Range.
She met several survivors of the actual Bataan Death March and
completed the event to recognize the military service of her father Jim
Potter of Kenmare and grandfather Marvin Gravesen, now of Bismarck.
By Caroline Downs
Michele (Potter) Marshall, a 1985 KHS graduate now of Las Cruces, NM, created a personal memorial to her father’s and grandfather’s military service when she participated in the Bataan Memorial Death March at the White Sands Missile Range.
She spent four hours and 39 minutes to walk the honorary route marked for the Memorial Death March.
"I’ve lived 22 years in Las Cruces, and I kept putting this off," she said about her decision to join the event in late March, "but my grandpa is still alive and my dad was diagnosed with prostrate cancer, and this was something I felt like I needed to do."
Michele is the daughter of Jim and Linda Potter of Kenmare, and the grandfather she referred to is Marvin Gravesen, who moved to Bismarck from Kenmare a few years ago. Michele lives with her husband Jim in Las Cruces and teaches in a preschool for developmentally delayed students. The Marshalls’ son Jim just finished his freshman year at New Mexico State University, while daughter Jennifer completed her junior year at the college.
Living near the White Sands Missile Range for so long, Michele was very much aware of the Memorial Death March. The event began in 1989 to honor members of the Army, Army Air Corps, Navy and Marines who were among the tens of thousands of prisoners captured by Japanese forces in the Philippines on April 9, 1942. In fact, she even had worked with the wife of one of the men from New Mexico State University who organized the first Memorial Death March to recognize former members of the 200th Coast Artillery, New Mexico National Guard, who were among those prisoners killed or forced to march for days through the Philippine jungle.
"This March was started as a challenge for different ROTC groups and to honor those who went through the Bataan Death March," Michele said. "It’s grown from there."
The Bataan Memorial Death March website at www.bataanmarch.com describes how the event that first attracted a few hundred military participants has expanded to include nearly 10,000 runners and walkers from around the world. Men and women compete in various age groups under military, ROTC or civilian categories as individuals or teams, with some teams going so far as to complete the course in the "heavy" division carrying backpacks or rucksacks holding at least 35 pounds.
The full route is 26.2 miles across the high desert terrain at White Sand. Michele, who enjoys running for fun and fitness reasons, chose to do the honorary route which covers 14.2 miles.
“I started running two and a half years ago,” she said. “I had a friend who was running and she talked me into running a marathon.”
That first marathon took place in San Antonio, TX, and Michele has continued to train and run in similar events in the region. She was certainly familiar with conditions for the White Sands Missile Range event, but with the March scheduled at about the time she begins training every year, she was not in peak form yet. The challenging course crosses a variety of elevations and surfaces.
“I walked it, except for the last hundred yards,” Michele said, adding she needed to protect her feet for further training and running events. “This is a tough race and I knew I couldn’t risk injuring myself.”
She paced herself through the desert and the hills. “There are a lot of hills,” she said. “By the fourth mile, we started climbing, which was about four miles uphill.”
The route also crossed a sand pit. “You’re walking in thick, soft sand and quite a bit of that is uphill,” said Michele, who admitted she struggled at times with the physical demands of the course and almost called her daughter to come and get her.
“But you keep going, even when you don’t feel like you have the strength to go another step,” she continued. “You join conversations to take your mind off the conditions. You see other people on the trail and you think, ‘Yes, I can, yes, I can.’”
Students from her school cheered her at one of the water stations along the course. “They were shouting, ‘You’re almost there!’ Then I turned the corner and it was uphill again!” Michele said, laughing as she talked about the last portion of the course which wound through housing on the post. “Toward the end, I kept telling myself, ‘It’s just around the corner. No, it’s around this corner,’ and I cried going across the finish line.”
Emotions and memories
She admitted the March was more emotional for her than she realized it was going to be, starting with the pageantry and symbolism of the opening ceremonies. “There were events scheduled before the race starts,” said Michele as she described the arrival of paratroopers, a rendition of Lee Greenwood’s song “Proud to be an American” and patriotic elements of the program.
“Then, they have roll call for the Bataan survivors, with a cannon shot as each name is called,” she said. “To see all the military personnel there in their fatigues and watch the emotions of the servicemen involved is something.”
Some of the original Bataan Death March survivors were present for the March and Michele saw them during the opening ceremonies. Their presence was significant after the race began as well, when the crowd of runners and walkers suddenly slowed. “Everybody was in huge pack,” she said. “I didn’t realize that quite a few of the soldiers on the March went past the Bataan survivors and shook their hands when they started the race. The survivors were in a line to do that.”
The connection between the current military personnel and Bataan survivors impressed her, but she had her own moment to meet the survivors when she crossed the finish line. “They were there at the end, and everyone was thanking them and shaking their hands for their sacrifice,” she said. “I couldn’t believe I got a chance to thank them.”
Michele said her grandfather’s and father’s military service was on her mind as she walked the course surrounded by other military personnel. Her grandfather, Marvin Gravesen, was drafted in October 1942 and assigned to the 10th Armored Division of the U.S. Army. He trained in Georgia and then joined the Third Army under General Patton in Europe. His division fought in the Battle of the Bulge through Germany from late 1944 through the spring of 1945, until Germany surrendered that spring.
Her father, Jim Potter, served with the U.S. Navy from 1960 through 1963 on the submarine tender the USS Nereus AS-17, where he was trained in precision electrical repair work.
Like other people on the March, Michele’s tears flowed at different times during the event, and her emotions carried her forward even when her body protested. “There are so many people on the trail, and seeing everybody out there with a common goal is something,” she said. “I passed some of the wounded soldiers taking part in the March, and there was one with two prosthetic legs. They’re out there doing this.”
The Bataan Memorial Death March website suggests participants should remember the true Death March and help each other along the trail just as the prisoners did. Michele said other marchers were always friendly and encouraging. “I met and walked with so many people that day,” she said.
After completing the honorary route, Michele is preparing to return next year for the full march. “This made me realize how connected to the military my family is,” she said as she named a cousin and a half-brother who both served in the armed forces. “During the march, I was thinking about all of them and their sacrifices, and that was one of the reasons I wanted to do this.”