The Clemson University Reserve Officer Training Corps honor guard, the Pershing Rifles, raises the American flag up the Memorial Stadium flagpole as U.S. Army Col. (retired) Ben Skardon (left), a Bataan Death March survivor, watches, Nov. 21, 2015. The ceremony dedicated the flagpole to Skardon, also a Clemson alumnus and professor emeritus. Photo by Staff Sgt. Ken Scar, 45th Military History Detachment, Public Affairs
CLEMSON, S.C. — The Clemson Tigers football team went into their home game against Wake Forest Nov. 21 undefeated and ranked number one in the nation, but for a few moments before kickoff all attention was turned away from the field, and onto a dapper 98 year-old gentleman sitting amid a crowd of news cameras and admirers at the foot of the Memorial Stadium flagpole, which was being permanently dedicated to him.
It was fitting that a WWII Veteran was in the spotlight on Clemson’s annual Military Appreciation Day – but any time retired U.S. Army Col. Ben Skardon steps onto the Clemson campus, all eyes turn to him.
There couldn’t be a better name to affix to that flagpole, said Clemson President James Clements.
“Before every home game, more than 80 thousand Tiger fans turn their attention to this flagpole and the flag it holds, to say the Pledge of Allegiance and sing the national anthem. So it is fitting to dedicate this flagpole to someone who served his country so fearlessly, and who is such a loyal member of the Clemson Family,” said Clements.
“Colonel Skardon is truly a great American, and one of the greatest individuals in the history of Clemson University. I can only aspire to serve others as selflessly as this man has during the course of his life.”
After graduating Clemson in 1938, Skardon commissioned into the Army, going on to become the commander of Company A of the 92nd Infantry Regiment PA (Philippine Army), a battalion of Filipino Army recruits on the Bataan Peninsula in the Philippines. He became a Prisoner of War with tens of thousands of his brothers-in-arms when American troops in that area of operation were forced to surrender to the Japanese April 9, 1942.
He lived through one of the most infamous ordeals of World War II, the Bataan Death March, in which thousands of sick, wounded and starving Soldiers were marched 80 miles in the searing heat through the Philippine jungles. Thousands died. Those that survived the march then had to survive the inhumane and brutal conditions of Japanese Prisoner-of-War camps.
Skardon survived for more than three years in the camps, despite becoming deathly ill. Two fellow Clemson alumni, Henry Leitner and Otis Morgan, kept him alive by spoon-feeding him and eventually trading his gold Clemson ring — which he had managed to keep hidden — for food. Leitner and Morgan did not survive the war.
U.S. Army Col. (retired) and Bataan Death March survivor Ben Skardon is surrounded by media and well-wishers – including Clemson University President James Clements (right) – as he reads the plaque at the base of the Memorial Stadium flag pole that was dedicated to him at a ceremony Nov. 21, 2015. Photo by Staff Sgt. Ken Scar, 45th Military History Detachment, Public Affairs
Incredibly, Skardon also survived the sinking of two unmarked Japanese transport ships carrying him and other POWs to mainland Japan. Russian units finally freed him in August 1945.
He went on to serve in Korea from 1951-52, and retired from the Army at the rank of colonel in 1962. He joined the Clemson faculty in the Department of English and was named Alumni Master Teacher in 1977. He taught at Clemson until his retirement in 1985 – but that was just another beginning for him.
In recent years, Skardon has become well-known in military circles as the only survivor who walks in the annual Bataan Memorial Death March in White Sands, New Mexico. He has walked eight-and-a-half miles in the event every year for the last eight years and plans to make the pilgrimage for a ninth time next year.
Skardon’s legend has gone beyond generational admiration and become a part of Clemson’s identity – his words literally written in stone in Memorial Park, adjacent to the stadium:
What will you commit to?
What will you leave?
What will you give to?
What do you believe?
Who will you respect?
What will you fight for?
Who will you protect?
What will you give a life for?
How will you serve?
“For me personally, he has been a teacher, mentor and friend for more than 30 years,” said David Stalnaker, of Dallas, Texas – a 1984 Clemson graduate and former student of Skardon’s who with his wife Eva donated the money to construct the monument.
“Probably due to his Bataan experience, the American flag is very special to Colonel Skardon – he tears up when he sees the Stars and Stripes going up into the sky. Thus, we thought the flagpole in Clemson Memorial Stadium would be a fitting tribute to this exemplary Clemson man.
“We hope that everyone will pause for a moment when they see that beautiful flag flying in the stadium and think about the sacrifices people like Ben Skardon have made to keep us free.”
Skardon, looking sharp in a crisp dark jacket under a white sky, and a small American flag on his breast, steadied himself against the new brick and bronze tribute to him and gave his perspective on the honor.
“One of the blessings which I have grown to cherish in my 81 years of association with Clemson University is the friendships that I have established with my Clemson Family,” he said. “The flagpole, I hold in reverence because it flies our National Banner, which is symbolic of the thousands whose lives made it sacred. I am especially indebted to Henry Daniel Leitner ‘37 and Otis Foster Morgan ‘38.
At football games at Clemson in Death Valley, the name is ironic for me. ‘Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death’ … it haunts me. I have trouble singing. Memories flood my mind. Tears come to my eyes. So many brave men and women are represented by our flag.
As poet [John Vance] Cheney has written: ‘Had the eye no tears, the soul would have no rainbow.’”