CLEMSON, South Carolina — What do you give a living legend for his 100th birthday? In the case of retired U.S. Army Col. Ben Skardon, a survivor of the Bataan Death March and beloved alumnus and professor emeritus of Clemson University: The party of the century, of course, along with awards and accolades presented by fellow service members and dignitaries.

At a formal luncheon Friday, Skardon’s remarkable life was commemorated by close friends and family alongside politicians and representatives who presented him with an array of awards and honors that chronicled his extraordinary contributions to Clemson University, the state of South Carolina and the nation.

The honors included a key to the city of Clemson and proclamation of “Ben Skardon Day,” a resolution of appreciation by the Clemson University board of trustees, resolutions by both houses of the South Carolina General Assembly presented by South Carolina District 3 Rep. Gary Clary, an American Flag that was flown over the U.S. Capitol building (on Skardon’s actual birthday, July 14) presented by U.S. Rep. Jeff Duncan, and the Order of the Palmetto — South Carolina’s highest civilian honor — presented by Gov. Henry McMaster.

Col. Skardon stands to left with white suit shaking Gov. McMasters hand (in dark suit) with the Order of the Palmetto certificate between them.

South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster presents Col. Ben Skardon the Order of the Palmetto.
Image Credit: Ken Scar

“It’s not often we have a moment like this,” said McMaster. “It’s such a wonderful thing to have living memories of what has happened, what people have sacrificed and the strength they’ve shown to build this country. Col. Skardon is an inspiration not only to the country but especially to the people of South Carolina.”

Clemson University President James P. Clements described the impact Skardon has had on generations of Clemson students, particularly through the story of Skardon’s Clemson Class of 1938 ring, which he hid from his Japanese captors during the Bataan Death March. Two of his fellow Clemson alumni, Henry Leitner and Otis Morgan, traded the ring for food to nurture Skardon back from death’s doorstep.

“We just celebrated this morning the graduation of 1,000 Clemson students who became Clemson alumni. They will leave the Clemson campus not only with the Clemson diploma in their hand, but a Clemson ring on their finger,” said Clements. “Most of them have heard Col. Skardon tell his story about how two fellow Clemson alumni used his ring to save his life. That story teaches us many lessons about loyalty, perseverance, sacrifice and courage. It is a story about service to country, service to others and service above self. Those lessons are not only present in the story of remarkable survival; they’re also lessons to be learned from his remarkable life.

“Col. Skardon is one of the truly great Americans. He is one of the greatest individuals in the history of Clemson University. He means so much to us, so much to this community. We should all aspire to serve others so selflessly as he has during the course of his life.”

Skardon spoke with his usual eloquence and sense of humor at the beginning of the ceremony, taking time to fondly recall his wife, Betsy, who was unable to attend. The two of them recently celebrated their 70th anniversary. He also remembered the two men who saved his life in World War II.

“I owe my life to Henry Daniel Leitner, class of 1937, and Otis Foster Morgan, class of 1938, who kept me from dying in a Japanese POW camp. I wanted you to know how I came to be standing here,” said Skardon. “I am deeply grateful and appreciative of those responsible for the celebration of this occasion. Thank you for including me and giving me credibility.”

Hundreds of well-wishers attended a boisterous public event held later in the afternoon at Clemson’s Memorial Park. Attendees were invited to sign birthday cards to the colonel and toured several key points of interest in the area that hold a special meaning to him, including the Scroll of Honor, the Memorial Park entrance and reflecting point (that have his words “Remembering those who lived and served and died so that we might live and serve” etched into them), and the Ben Skardon flag pole in Memorial Stadium.

Five members of the Pershing Rifles dressed in their formal uniforms look up at the two flags blowing in the wind.

Members of the Pershing Rifles watch as a special flag made for Col. Ben Skardon flies under the American flag on the Ben Skardon flag pole in Memorial Stadium.
Image Credit: Ken Scar

Skardon passed out specially minted challenge coins that featured a Clemson Class of 1938 ring emblem on one side and a replica of the Bataan Death March Memorial statue on the other with Skardon’s signature line “Keep the Faith” etched underneath.

Emcee Col. Sandy Edge, president of the Clemson Alumni Association, explained the significance of the coins:

“In typical fashion, Col. Skardon wants this day to be about more than his birthday. That is why he is distributing a special challenge coin that conveys his birthday wish to each of us. Challenge coins are a long-standing military tradition. They have become widely recognized symbols of friendship, unity and respect. Col. Skardon’s challenge to us today is a very special one. You’ll see the purple side of the coin features the Bataan Death March Memorial and the words ‘Keep the Faith,’ which is the colonel’s personal motto and his challenge to each of us.”

Edge then recapped the honors presented earlier in the day and announced the results of a fundraising campaign for the Col. Beverly N. “Ben” Skardon, ’38 Clemson Corps Endowment. Edge also announced the dedication of a reflection stone at the Scroll of Honor that will honor Skardon and Henry Leitner and Otis Morgan, who died in the POW camp.

Clemson’s nine-time national champion Reserve Officers’ Training Corps drill and ceremony team the Pershing Rifles then presented Skardon with a commemorative flag created specifically for this occasion featuring the design of the challenge coin.

The event ended with a musical tribute by Clemson professors emeritus Joel Brawley and Brad Russell, a rousing rendition of “Happy Birthday” and a group photo.

“This has been such a special day at Clemson,” said Edge. “I know I speak for everyone who has been involved in the planning and execution of this celebration in saying that it has truly been a labor of love and respect. Earlier today I heard President James Clements refer to today as ‘the birthday party of the century’ and it is certainly that.”