Seventy-two years after a grueling forced march took the lives of more than 7,000 soldiers, a group of high school cadets in Irmo is marching overnight this weekend in hopes of raising awareness among recent generations about the historical event and the sacrifice veterans make.
The Bataan Death March took place in April 1942 when American and Filipino forces surrendered following the three-month battle of Bataan in the Philippines. The Imperial Japanese Army forced between 60,000 and 80,000 American and Filipino soldiers to walk 65 miles without food or breaks. An estimated 7,000 to 10,000 soldiers died during the march.
The Irmo Air Force Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps is holding its annual 24-hour Bataan Death March Memorial to educate people about World War II veterans who were in the march, as well as raise money for Honor Flight – a program created by Columbia restaurateur Bill Dukes that sends World War II and Korean War vets to Washington, D.C., to see the monuments to vets who fought in those wars.
“This is something small compared to what vets have sacrificed for us,” Cadet Captain Peter Ruiz, a 17-year-old junior, said. “They’ve done the ultimate sacrifice for us. Us helping raise money to send vets to see their memorials is the least we can do to repay them.”
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Dukes, chairman of Honor Flight SC and an Air Force veteran, approached the Irmo cadets five years ago to see if there was anything they could do to get high schools involved with the program. Air Force JROTC instructor Jay Seward started talking to cadets about what they could do.
“The cadets decided to do a march-a-thon rather than a walk-a-thon since that’s something they know how to do,” Seward said. “From there, they tied it to something with meaning, the Bataan Death March.”
More than 60 cadets will walk about 80 miles in total over the 24 hours. Cadets will take two-hour shifts without food or water in honor of those who were in the Bataan Death March.
“The flight sergeant and flight commander will do a releasing of the previous shift in a very ceremonial way,” Cadet Colonel Savannah Swearingen, a 17-year-old senior, said. “We never stop marching at any point.”
To reach their goal of $7,500, cadets are selling luminaries to line the track as they march, as well as accepting donations. They are also accepting supply donations to support the cadets throughout the 24-hour time span of the march.
Their first Bataan Death March Memorial began five years ago in conjunction with a local spring carnival. Cadets soon decided it wasn’t the right fit for the event.
“The carnival wasn’t the right idea because it got rid of some of the solemnity of the occasion,” Seward said. “The right answer was to have a very concentrated and respectful ceremony for the vets.”
The memorial is not only meant to raise money for Honor Flight, but to educate the public on the historic event.
“A lot of people don’t know about the Bataan Death March,” Swearingen said. “There will be a dedication ceremony at 11:30 a.m. Saturday to explain what it is and why we are doing something like this.”
The march is not the only way Irmo cadets support Honor Flight. When the veterans return home from D.C., they are present at the airport to give them a hero’s welcome.
“While a part of the saber line welcoming the veterans, it is so hard to stay in position and not personally thank them,” Ruiz said. “What we’re doing for them is so small compared to everything they did for us.”
The Irmo cadets have welcomed veterans home after every Honor Flight but one since the program’s creation in 2008.
“It gives me the goose bumps thinking about everything these kids have done for our heroes,” Dukes said. “The respect they have for previous generations is astounding.”
If you go
WHAT: Bataan Death March Memorial; more than 60 Air Force JROTC cadets will march in shifts for 24 hours
WHERE: Irmo High School, 6671 St. Andrews Road, Columbia
WHEN: 6 p.m. Friday-6 p.m. Saturday; a public dedication ceremony will take place at 11:30 a.m. Saturday
DONATE: Buy a luminary to light the cadets’ path for $5 or donate