Last Friday and Saturday, 12 cadets of Detachment 172 and two civilians conquered a noble task – they marched 26.2 miles in honor of the soldiers who lost their lives during World War II in the Bataan Death March.
The cadets, unable to make it to the march in New Mexico, wore Airman Battle Uniforms and carried a rucksack full of rice ranging from 35 to 50 pounds, which was donated to Second Harvest.
The actual Bataan Death March took place in 1942 after the Battle of Bataan in the Philippines. The Japanese military forced around 75,000 American and Filipino soldiers to walk 60 miles in harsh conditions, and under severe mental and physical abuse, including murder.
If a soldier happened to fall because of fatigue, the Japanese military would use trucks to run over him, and if a soldier was too weak to continue, he would be brutally murdered.
“Thousands of people died out there,” Senior Cadet Nick Sternitzky, organizer of the memorial march, said. “They were undermanned, under gunned and had old equipment, but they still tried their hardest to protect people of the Philippines, as well as other soldiers.”
Sternitzky, assigned to Edwards Air Force Base to be a behavioral scientist, said he organized the event to promote camaraderie.
“That’s a big part of what we are doing here,” Sternitzky said. “We can’t go out there by ourselves, so we definitely have to be a team working together.”
The cadets trained for seven months to get ready for the 26.2 mile march around Valdosta. On Friday afternoon, they marched 13.1 miles down Bemiss Road, with each cadet taking turns carrying the Prisoner of War flag, and completed the other 13.1 miles up Baytree Road and the campus parking decks on Saturday morning.
Senior Cadet Tonya Bridgewater, assigned to Langley Air Force Base for financing, was one of the two female cadets who participated in the march.
“This means a lot,” Bridgewater said. “This will be my first actual remembrance of POW, and all the members of the military who have been killed in war. This is a huge event for me to take part in. Just actually thinking of what they’ve been through and we’re just walking. It’s nothing that can compare to what they’ve been through.”
One method of support came from Lieutenant Colonel Marsha Aleem in the form of a pep talk before the march began.
“Thank you guys so much for taking the event and making sure we were able to see that happen,” Col. Aleem said. “We’re gonna get tired, we’re gonna get thirsty, just consider those men who died and sacrificed their lives in service to our country.”
Another form of support came from one cadet’s dad. Cadet John Phifer’s dad decided to show his admiration for the fallen soldiers by marching with the cadets.
“I am a runner, but I’ve never done anything of this nature,” Phifer said. “There were times you wanted to quit, stop or slow down, but this group is put together so well and they all wanted to just keep on going. What those men did, what they went through back then is inspiration alone.”
Overall, Sternitzky rated the success of the event a ten out of ten because each cadet was able to finish the march.
“Everybody pushed themselves as far as they could,” Sternitzky said. “I think everyone has a much deeper appreciation for what POWs really go through, so I’d say 100 percent success.”
After Saturday’s march, the morale was still high with Col. Marsha Aleem yelling to the cadets: “Det 172, are you fired up?” And the cadets, still breathing hard from the march responding, “Fired up, gonna stomp it out!”