“It goes to show, they haven't forgotten about us yet.”
— Ernest Montoya, 515th Coast Artillery
on learning about the JROTC's March
By: Colonel Jay Seward, ROTC Instructor, Irmo
High School, Irmo, South Carolina
and they marched... and they marched. For a full 24 hours the
cadets of Irmo High School in Columbia, South Carolina, marched
in a fund raising effort to earn money to send World War II
veterans to their memorial in Washington, DC, as part of the
national Honor Flight effort. This cadet effort was called the
Bataan Death March in honor of veterans and the prisoners of war
from all wars, but specifically those of World War II.
This effort started last summer as an idea. During an off-site
planning conference with another local AFJROTC unit, the cadets
set a goal of earning money for the Honor Flight effort.
Historically, Irmo High School cadets have done the saber line
during the reception of World War II veterans as they return to
Columbia, South Carolina, as part of the Honor Flight of South
Carolina. During these events, the cadets have witnessed the
impact of Honor Flight, as some wheel chair bound veterans have
climbed out of their chairs to walk through the saber line.
Honor Flight brings a renewed sense of spirit, and hope, and so
the Irmo cadets saw the effort as a good one to support.
January and early February, the event began to take shape as the
booster club parents first heard of the idea of marching for
this charity. The 10th of April was the set as the day of the
event, and the title was picked to be the Bataan Death March.
Historically, the Bataan Death March was the most horrific abuse
of American soldier and sailor prisoners of war in the Second
World War. Its anniversary conveniently fell on a Saturday that
was free of other scheduling conflicts. The only impacting
factor was that the Saturday at the end of spring break.
However, the cadets made the right choice namely, “we'll
sacrifice our, vacations in honor of those who sacrificed.” As
so the event came to be.
Slowly things came together. The requirement was set...a march
for 24 hours without stopping. Rules were determined...no food
or water during the march unless safety dictated an exception.
The schedule was made and consisted of 3 hours shifts of
volunteer cadets. A route was determined, again constrained by
safety to school grounds. In the end, the cadets march route
circumnavigated the main building of the campus layout.
Luminarias (or Farolitos if you are a Norteño)
— a New Mexico Christmas tradition.
Because the goal was to earn money, that became the next focus.
The idea to sell luminaries was quickly adopted, and the SC
Honor Flight organization agreed to allow the unit to use their
logo. Each luminary would be hand printed with the name of a
veteran. Soon, luminaries were for sale for $5 each in local
retail establishments as citations "in honor of or "in memory
of' were recorded and then transcribed onto white paper bags.
These bags would eventually mark both sides of the route of
march. During the day, each bag would fly a small US flag, and
at night each bag and its flag would be lit by a votive candle.
The march itself began promptly at 7 on the morning of April
tenth, the anniversary of the start of the 1942 death march.
With little fanfare, a group of 10 cadets started marching to
the sounds of traditional military marching music. Include in
this first 10 were two cadets from Ridge View High School's Army
JROTC unit, who wanted to join
the march in honor of their Filipino history. Over the next 24
hours, eight shifts repeated the 3-hour challenge. At times,
contingents had a full 10 cadets and sometimes the continent was
less. Why? Eventually, the “Death March” lived up to its name
and took its toll on legs and feet.
The course measured about 4/10th of a mile and cadets averaged 9
miles in the three hours of each shift. The level of sacrifice
required to meet the constraints can be seen in the
characterization of the shift of 4 cadets to march the last 3
hours from 4 till 7 in the morning. Three of the cadets finished
after marching over 27 miles each, and the fourth cadet was on
her seventeenth mile when she ended at 7 AM on 11 April. These
survivors could only hobble into the brief ecumenical memorial
service held at McGregor Presbyterian Church after the march
concluded...but two of them did. One offered a prayer of
thanksgiving for the Bataan Death March experience and the
opportunity to do it again next year, while the other read a
reading then used by a minister to reflect on his time visiting
the American cemetery in Manila and his thoughts on the
importance of hope.
Did the Death March make a difference? Yes. At last count, the
cadets earned over $2000 for Honor Flight efforts, and money is
still coming in. But those were not the only differences made.
During the event, the first grade son of a former Irmo cadet and
Clemson graduate who died while flying in Afghanistan, lit a
candle for the father he had never met after marking the
luminary himself. He was accompanied by his grandmother, his
deceased father's mother. Other relatives of veterans walked the
route of luminaries at night to find a name and, in some cases,
also did the lighting. Repeated requests were made “to do this
again next year, and let us know in advance so we can
what is perhaps the most touching story, the Bataan theme led
Irmo cadets to visit with a Bataan Death March survivor (Don
Pike) in the local VA hospital. This US Marine recently had a
stroke and could barely whisper, but the cadets met and talked
to him and his wife, who help them understand his answers. One
cadet wrote an article for the high school paper. As a result of
this outreach, the cadets were invited back by the Marine's wife
to witness the Marine Corp League give him a letter from the
Commandant of the Marine Corps. During this presentation, the
Marine came alive and vocalized his first truly audible words
since his stroke. He then tried his best to sing the Marine
Corps hymn along with the Marine reservists standing behind him.
Two days later, his wife (Polly Pike) wrote the cadets and other
supporters to tell them that he had gotten himself out of bed
that morning, shaved himself, and eaten three breakfast meals in
succession. He'd found his strength again, through the caring of
his fellow Marines and the small efforts of cadets who took the
time to learn his story...the story of the hell that was Bataan
and the courage of American sacrifice and hope.
The 2010 Death March was clearly a success on a number of
Story provided by Larry Shunkwiler, Harold E. “Speedy” Wilson Marine Corps League Detachment