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October 16th, 2013

Embracing the Past: A Reflection on Col. Ben Skardon’s Story of Survival, Loyalty and Faith

Many would argue that there are situations in life when it is appropriate to forget the past and move forward. In listening to Colonel Ben Skardon about his time as a WWII soldier and his survival of the Bataan Death March, it is apparent that it is much more valuable to not forget the past, but to embrace it. It is important to remember the events of history, with all of their joy, sorrow, and even their pain, and learn from those experiences. More importantly though, the sharing of those experiences beckons the listener to engage with the story, be impacted by it, and to learn from it.

Col. Ben Skardon shared his story of survival, loyalty and faith during his time as a Japanese prisoner of war in the Pacific Theater of WWII. He endured the dreadful Bataan Death March where 60,000 Americans and Filipinos were forced to march to a Japanese camp and provide labor. His stories of the extreme conditions he and his fellow soldiers faced, left many in awe, wondering how he survived.

It was amazing to hear how such seemingly small things allowed him to press on during the most grueling parts of the march. Hiding a small can of condensed milk in a sock provided the essential nutrition he needed to sustain himself until he arrived at the camp. Moreover, remaining near the center of the marching column protected him from the prodding of the Japanese bayonets that almost ensured death before completing the march. These examples of Col. Skardon’s intuition are what enabled him to survive. As time pressed on, though, and the prisoners reached the work camp, it would take much more than the Colonel’s own person to carry him though the hardships he would soon face.

Skardon’s loyalty to friends is what proved vital to his survival during the time spent working at the camp. He fell ill to a disease known as beriberi, which caused incredible pain in his hands and feet. Unable to work and carry out daily functions, Skardon found himself slowly dying from malnutrition. It was his friends that saved his life; they sold his Clemson class ring which was used to barter and procure substantial food, nourishing Skardon back to health. It was a moving moment when Skardon recalled this memory and expressed how grateful he was towards his friends that showed such loyalty to him. Skardon had stared in the face of death on more than one occasion by the time he left the work camp, and little did he know at the time that he would come close to death even more still.

Skardon was put on a Japanese transport ship to be shipped to another work camp on the Asian mainland. He described the ship being full of American prisoners of war, packed so tightly that one could barely move. The Japanese sealed the hull shut so that no one could escape. Skardon recalls this time as his lowest point. He said he just wanted to stand up and scream, yell, and do anything to remove himself from that hull filled with dysentery-infected men. Ironically, the ship was attacked by American forces, which blew open the hull, allowing Skardon to escape the ship. Reflecting back on his time aboard the ship, Skardon attributes his survival to the faithful prayers of his mother. He knew that he was at his breaking point, and yet he pressed on, apart from his own power. He thanks God and his mother for being faithful to him, and he recognizes that it was a much higher power that saved him from the horrible conditions of that transport ship.

It is this point of his story that is most inspiring. Skardon had the integrity of admitting to sinking to an inhuman, animalistic state aboard that ship. He was treated much less than human and so he began to act less than human. But the man he described on that ship was not the man that stood upon the stage that morning. Upon that stage was a man of honor, integrity, courage, self-sacrifice and love. That man was not an animal, he was a man that deserved great respect for the sacrifices he made serving this country. His story of survival, loyalty and faith was not something that manifested itself in the moment, but rather, came to be after reflection and learning from his time in the Philippines as a prisoner of war. Graciously, he has passed on his story so that others may learn the importance of these things, and to show that the past can only be learned from if it is embraced, not simply thrown out and forgotten. Remembering the past can be a bittersweet moment of pain and suffering, but in remembering it, overwhelming joy can be given through the knowledge of just how far one has made progress into the present.