On April 9, 1942, Maj. Gen. Edward King Jr. surrendered starving and diseased joint Philippine and American forces to the Japanese, after months of resistance. In what is now known as the Bataan Death March, the 75,000 soldiers were then forced to march approximately 65 miles over five days.
Thousands of starving troops were beaten and bayoneted if they were too weak to move. Thousands more died from malnutrition, disease or mistreatment from the Japanese army, even if they survived the march.
After years of hearing about the Bataan Memorial Death March, Argel Cardoniga wanted to complete it. The Santa Clarita Valley resident, a Filipino-American fitness instructor and retired senior manager in federal law enforcement, wanted to honor the memories of those who had marched and died all those years ago — including his grandfather.
The Bataan Memorial March is an annual marathon held at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico. The marathon can either be run as an individual or team event and is divided into heavy and light divisions for civilians and the military and an honorary 14-mile march. Those competing in the light division run it as a normal race, but those in the heavy division must carry at least 35 pounds on their backs to simulate the heavy equipment the original Bataan prisoners had to carry for the Japanese army. Usually this weight is food, which the marathon organizers donate to local food banks.
When he took on the march in 2018, the first mile was easy, he said. The next four were pure adrenaline, which wore off at mile five, just as the steep incline of a mountain began.
The blisters began to form on his feet at mile 15. Exhaustion set in. At 18 miles, he hit the sand pit, and every three steps took the effort of 10, he said. At mile 26, Argel Cardoniga’s march ended.
“I saw a lot of active duty military quit early because the course is just that hard, but there were also special forces teams running this in full uniform and boots with their 35-pound minimum jogging on their way back before I had even reached halfway,” Cardoniga said. “If you’re in the heavy division, they weigh your pack at the end, not including your liquids, and if it’s under 35 pounds you get a ‘did not finish.’ People were crying after finishing like that.”
Born in the Philippines, Cardoniga moved to New Jersey when he was 3 years old. When he was 10, he discovered the film “Back to Bataan,” starring John Wayne, and learned from his mother that his grandfather was one of the soldiers forced into the Bataan Death March.
“After I saw that movie, I just thought, ‘Wow, my family has history here,’” Cardoniga said. “My grandfather, Pvt. Onofre Orpilla, died as a prisoner of war and never lived to meet his daughter, my mother. Originally, we thought he died during the march, but when we got his death certificate, we discovered that he died after the march ended, so he must have died in the camps.”
Cardoniga was set to retire in 2018, and decided that he would use his newfound free time leading up to the retirement to train for the memorial march. He also turned 50 that year, and felt it’d be the perfect way to celebrate his age. Cardoniga decided to participate in the heavy division. To ensure he did not get disqualified, Cardoniga filled his pack with two 20-pound sacks of rice plus about 10 pounds of supplies.
“The pain I was going to go through was nothing compared to what my grandfather went through,” Cardoniga said.
Many people Cardoniga knew had done the march, so he knew he would need to train, especially because the cartilage in his knees is damaged. Catherine Francisco, fitness director at Henry Mayo Fitness and Health, was one of the trainers who helped him prepare his body for the ordeal and focused increasing his mobility and cardiovascular endurance and preparing while addressing his knee issue.
“I wanted to make sure he stayed agile and had proper balance because he would be walking on rough terrain like sand, and also building the muscles in his legs to take his weight rather than his knees,” Francisco said. “The first time he told me about what he wanted to do, my jaw dropped. Argel is a highly motivated and energetic overachiever, so his biggest challenge while training was rest. A lot of what made Argel succeed was his mental strength because we can train him as much as we can, but I knew from the beginning he was going to be successful and it’s really impressive because of his age.”
Aside from working with Francisco, he also trained by hiking up to 20 miles with 60 pounds on his back in Haskell Canyon, Central Park and Newhall, reasoning that if he could do 20 miles with 60 pounds then 26 miles with 50 pounds would be much more manageable.
The day of the race began with an opening ceremony that featured survivors of the real Bataan Death March.
“People were in tears, and I think I was in tears, also because who knows if one of these guys marched with my grandfather?” he said. “Shaking their hands, I just felt a connection. It made me feel even more like there is no way I’m not finishing this.”
Eleven hours later, exhausted and with bloodied feet, Cardoniga finished the march.
“People could say it’s just the marathon and yeah, it’s a hard marathon, but knowing what it stood for, why they did this and the history just blew my mind,” he said. “I don’t think I’ll ever do another event that’s going to have that much of an impact emotionally for me, mentally and physically all wrapped up in one. This is part of world history, and now I feel like I was part of it in some way.”
This year, members of Cardoniga’s family will take on the challenge, as well. Anthony Cardoniga, Argel’s nephew and a retired Marine, will be tackling the heavy division.
“I’m actually doing this with my father, and even though I’m in the heavy division and he’s doing the light division, it’ll be cool to walk the course together,” Anthony said. “I really wanted to do this as a tribute to my great-grandfather, as well as honor the members of the military that came before me. Not a lot of people know about this part of World War II and the marathon helps spread that awareness.”
This year’s Bataan Memorial Death March is scheduled to take place on March 15. Registration is open until March 14 at bataanmarch.com.