Eight Clemson WWII heroes honored; inaugural “Clemson 8” Challenge funds ROTC scholarships

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On April 9, 1942, eight Clemson alumni from the state of South Carolina became prisoners of war with tens of thousands of their brothers-in-arms when American troops fighting in the Philippines were ordered to surrender to the Japanese. They were marched north some 70 miles by their captors in what would become known as the Bataan Death March, one of the most notorious war crimes in history.

Already weak and starving from months of intense fighting and illness, the POWs were herded with other sick, wounded and starving soldiers through the searing heat of the Philippine jungles. Thousands died. Those who survived the march then had to survive for years in inhumane Japanese prisoner-of-war camps and the sinking by our own Navy of unmarked prison ships trying to steal the POWs away to the mainland toward the end of the war. It is impossible to know the exact number, but it is estimated at least 57 percent of the captured Americans did not survive the war – more than 11,500 souls — which is considered a very conservative number by most experts.

All eight Clemson men survived the march, but five of them died during the ensuing incarceration:

  • Army Capt. William (Bill) R. English ’37, Columbia
  • Army Capt. Henry D. Leitner ’37, Greenwood
  • Army 1st Lt. Otis F. Morgan ’38, Laurens
  • Army Lt. Martin Crook, Jr. ’39, Spartanburg
  • Army Air Force Capt. Francis H. Scarborough ’39, Bishopville

The three who survived against all odds were:

  • Army Capt. Albert M. George ’36, Aiken
  • Army Col. Beverly (Ben) N. Skardon ’38, Walterboro
  • Army Capt. Marion (Manny) R. Lawton ’40, Garnett
Col. Ben Skardon, a 1938 graduate of Clemson University, WWII POW, recipient of two Silver Stars, and survivor of the Bataan Death March, walks in the Bataan Memorial Death March for the 11th time at age 101, March 17, 2019. Members of Ben’s Brigade — a group of fellow Clemson alumni, veterans, former students, friends and family — accompany him.

Skardon, 103, is the last living member of this illustrious group. He is well known as the only survivor of the real Bataan Death March who walks in the annual Bataan Memorial Death March at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico, one of the toughest and most popular marathons in the world. The event became a pilgrimage for veterans, active-duty military members, supporters, the few remaining survivors and family members of the men who perished in the march, the POW camps and the sunken ships.

To date, Skardon has walked in the march 11 times, most often a distance of 8.5 miles, beginning in 2007 when he was 88. His last walk was in 2019, at age 101. He considers it his duty to walk each year to honor his brothers-in-arms who did not return from the war.

He was on his way to walk again in 2020 when the event was canceled at the last minute due to the coronavirus pandemic. Skardon lamented when the 2021 event was also cancelled. As he put it to a group of friends shortly after hearing the news, his annual trip to White Sands was the “carrot” that got him up and walking every day.

The “Clemson 8” Challenge Bataan Death March Remembrance Walk/Run/Bike/Hike/March

The “Clemson 8” Challenge was created by a team of students, veterans, alumni and friends to carry on Skardon’s mission of honoring those who gave the ultimate sacrifice for our country in one of the most brutal wartime events in history.

Retired U.S. Army Col. Ben Skardon, 103, trains for the Clemson 8 Challenge by walking around his neighborhood near the Clemson campus, Jan. 29, 2021.

“The whole idea of a local Bataan remembrance started with that carrot statement,” said Trent Allen, a 1982 Clemson graduate and one of Skardon’s close friends. “Of course, we knew that he would never agree to an event that was just about him, so it would have to be about Clemson or his buddies in the Bataan march. We did some research and discovered there were eight Clemson alumni who were forced to endure the Bataan Death March in April 1942. That was the connection we needed to create the event. Ben walked eight-plus miles in the Bataan Memorial Death March in New Mexico from the age of 88 to 99 and three-plus miles at 100 and 101 — and there were eight Clemson alumni in the real Death March. Just like that, the ‘Clemson 8’ Challenge was formed!” 

The challenge will be the week of March 21-28 and is open to the public. It is a virtual race so participants can walk, run, bike or hike on the course of their choosing. Participants can complete it in one day or throughout the eight-day period. All proceeds from the $30 (adult) and $20 (student) entry fee will benefit the Clemson University ROTC program to fund scholarships and send a group of cadets to compete in the 2022 Bataan Memorial Death March.

Organizers believe entrants will get a lot more than exercise by participating in the event.

“I’m the son of World War II Navy veteran Paul Seketa,” said John Seketa, former assistant athletic director, 2013 Honorary Clemson Alumnus and one of the organizers of the event. “My father never talked about his three years in the military. It wasn’t until I came to Clemson in 1986 and helped coordinate Military Appreciation Day from 1994 to 2012 that I looked into my dad’s service on the USS New Orleans.”

Seketa shared how fortunate we are to still have members of the Greatest Generation still living so events such as the Bataan Death March are never forgotten.

Retired U.S. Army Col. Ben Skardon, 103, a survivor of the Bataan Death March and Clemson University legend, holds a copy of fellow Clemson alum and death march survivor Manny Lawton’s book “Some Survived”, Jan. 29, 2021.

“Clemson University has always been a military school and I hope this virtual race will get more students and alumni involved in researching their own family military history so it is not forgotten,” said Seketa.

Efforts are underway to make the “Clemson 8” Challenge an annual event. While the original Bataan Memorial Death March attracts thousands of world-class athletes and high-speed military service members who relish the challenge of running hard miles through the high mountain desert, organizers want people to know the “Clemson 8” Challenge is for anyone.

“This challenge is designed for everyone,” said Allen. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a marathoner, a biker, an exercise advocate, a walker or a couch potato – you can take the challenge. It takes place over eight days. You can walk, run, bike, hike or march wherever you are, and you can challenge yourself to finish anywhere from eight miles in eight days to 26.2 mile in one day.  Whatever gets you motivated to get up and get moving.”

Skardon signed up to participate the first day the signup page went live. The “carrot” his friends created for him worked perfectly, so the event has already been a great success in that respect. He has been walking every day in preparation and plans to walk his eight miles one mile a day for eight consecutive days.

“Just a reminder: He’s 103 and a half,” said Allen. “So none of the rest of us have any excuses to sit this one out.”

You can sign up to participate at this link.

After registering for the “Clemson 8” race, everyone is encouraged to continue their training and participate in the 2021 virtual edition of the 32nd Annual Bataan Memorial Death March, which will be held in April.

Visit the Scroll of Honor website to learn more about the five Clemson men who passed away during incarceration.

For additional race information, contact race director John Seketa at johnseketa@gmail.com or 864-903-1487.

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