“It goes to show, they haven't forgotten about us yet.”


— Ernest Montoya, 515th Coast Artillery

on learning about the JROTC's March


They marched... and they marched... and they marched


By: Colonel Jay Seward, ROTC Instructor, Irmo High School, Irmo, South Carolina


April 10, 2010 — They marched... 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.


In 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 participate.”


In 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 levels.


Story provided by Larry Shunkwiler, Harold E. “Speedy” Wilson Marine Corps League Detachment