VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System
Infamous Travesty Inspires Circle of Service
LOS ANGELES — Envision for a moment, you are in a foreign land. Day in and day out, combat and carnage are all consuming. Finally, the fighting ceases and you are marching through the brush with thousands of your comrades. That great ball of fire now acts as an adhesive for the layer of grime that's settled on your skin. You attempt to suck in as much of the muggy air as possible only to discover it's almost too heavy to breathe. Hours bleed into days. You are at the mercy of your adversary and there is no water, no food. There is no relief. The slightest transgression might cost one their life and you are acutely aware, with every step, that it may be your last.
It's difficult to fathom such cruelty and even harder to believe that anyone survived it. Yet, the Bataan Death March is cemented in the annals of history as one of the most notorious travesties of WWII. On March 17, the annual Bataan Memorial Death March marathon was held in Las Cruces, N.M., and VA Greater Los Angeles Health Care System's Shirley Madrid, patient safety manager, Quality Control, participated in the Honorary March portion of the event to honor the lives that were lost and those that were unequivocally altered on the Bataan Peninsula in the Spring of 1942.
"I like physically challenging things and [the memorial marathon] is very Veteran centric," Madrid said. "I was inspired by stories I heard about a distant cousin who died on that particular march and when I was an active duty Army nurse, I got to take care of a fellow Veteran and nurse who survived the Bataan Death March."
The nearly 8,000 participants of the Memorial March were given the option to register individually or as part of a team, under a military or civilian classification for either the half-marathon, also known as the Honorary March, or the full-marathon. Once a category was chosen, there was also the option to run the event weightless or with a 35 lb. pack. Regardless of the specifications they chose, those who attended were no doubt inspired by tales of the extreme adversity sufferers of the Death March faced.
"The motto for this particular group is ‘No mama, No papa, No Uncle Sam' because they were totally abandoned when they were taken prisoner," Madrid said. "It's not just about remembering Veterans [from the Death March] because when you go to this marathon, you see these people who are wearing the names of other soldiers who have been killed in recent conflicts. It's about remembering all the people who have died in the face of battle."
Despite the pain that began to radiate from her knee after mile six, Madrid pushed on, inspired by her fellow participants and driven by the American heroes turned Prisoners of War. Lionhearts the likes of Harry Corre, VA patient experience officer, Veteran, and survivor of the Bataan Death March.
Courage in the Face of Adversity
He was only 19 and an Army corporal serving in the 59th Coast Artillery Regiment, fighting in the Philippines alongside the Filipino defenders. For three months, they persevered through arduous battle. Then on April 9, 1942, with the regiment afflicted by disease and starvation, Gen. Edward King Jr. was forced to surrender and Corre became one of the nearly 75,000 American troops who were now POWs.
"We were surrounded by Japanese soldiers, they took all our [weapons] and then pushed us out on the road near Mariveles," Corre said. "I was on the Death March for two days and three nights and during that period of time I saw hundreds of Filipinos and Americans shot, bayoneted, their heads cut off with swords by the Japanese officers, for the slightest infraction."
By his own calculations, Corre knew he wouldn't last long. So, under the cover of night and an opportune rainstorm, he escaped.
"There was a lot of lightning and thunder, just a lot of noise, so I dove off the side of the road and into the jungle," Corre said. "It took me approximately four days to work my way back to Mariveles, which is the closest I could get to Corregidor. I gathered up some wood and debris that were there, tied them together with anything I could find, worked myself out into the bay and swam back to Corregidor."
Corre swam nearly four miles through perilous waters, which he later found out were shark infested. When he arrived at Corregidor, he was received by the Marines and shortly thereafter he rejoined his unit. Alas, within one month of his escape, Corregidor fell to the Japanese and Corre found himself, once again, a POW. For the next three years, Corre would toil away in a Japanese labor camp, dropping down to a mere 97 lbs. and suffering from severe malnutrition before he eventually regained his freedom at the close of the war.
Circle of Service
Now, at nearly 96 years old Harry continues to serve as a patient experience officer for fellow Veterans at VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System. An unfortunate first experience at a VA in his hometown of Boston, inspired him to be the opposite for Veterans in need.
"Today's VA is a lot different than what I dealt with when I first got out," Corre said. "It is because of what I went through then, that I try to let people know that I'm here to help them as much as I can."
It's been nearly eight decades since the atrocities that took place at Bataan and after surviving a tragedy of immeasurable proportions and enduring enough hardship to last a lifetime, Corre chooses to live his life in service to others.
"I'm sure that was a life changing event that altered who he was and how he sees life," Madrid said. "I think [Corre] brings those [experiences] into every interaction he has with other Veterans and knowing what he's gone through, I think it makes a person much more appreciative of everything [voluntary services] does and [the people] who work [there]."