CLEMSON — Any time retired U.S. Army Col. Ben Skardon steps onto the Clemson University campus, all eyes turn to him.
On Military Appreciation Day at the school, the dapper 98-year-old World War II veteran sat amid a crowd of news media and admirers at the foot of the Memorial Stadium flagpole, which was being permanently dedicated to him.
There couldn’t be a better name to affix to that flagpole, said Clemson President James P. Clements.
“Before every home game, more than 80,000 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 from Clemson in 1938, Skardon was 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 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 sick, wounded and starving soldiers were forced to march 80 miles in the searing heat through the Philippine jungles. Thousands died. Those who 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.
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 served in Korea in 1951-52, and retired as a colonel from the Army in 1962. He joined the Clemson faculty in the English department and was named Alumni Master Teacher in 1977. He taught at Clemson until his retirement in 1985.
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 Clemson alumnus David Stalnaker of Dallas, Texas. Stalnaker and his wife, Eva, donated the money to erect the honorary flagpole.
“Probably due to his Bataan experience, the American flag is very special to Col. 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,” Stalnaker said. “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 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 and Otis Foster Morgan.
“At football games at Clemson in Death Valley, the name is ironic for me. Memories flood my mind. Tears come to my eyes. So many brave men and women are represented by our flag.”
This story courtesy of Clemson University.