UWRF cadets take on 26-mile Bataan March
April 21, 2023
Walking is not something that many people consider a notable activity. It is a means to reach a destination, a way for the students at UWRF to move from one class to another, but, for three cadets from UWRF’s ROTC program, walking would come to symbolize much more.
The three cadets, including myself, senior Johann Carstensen, and freshman Chris Lorsung, took a trip with Assistant Professor of Military Science Captain Stephen Trotter to White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico to partake in the 34th annual Bataan Death March on March 19.
The 26.2-mile-long foot march takes participants through White Sands, where the world’s first atomic bomb was detonated on July 16, 1945. The winding paths take the marchers on the journey of a lifetime, complete with beautiful views of the mountains and desert landscapes that encompass the area. Although the sights of the march are ones to behold, the origins of it are far bleaker.
The actual Bataan Death March occurred in the Philippines on April 9, 1942, when an estimated 76,000 Filipinos and American troops embarked on a 66-mile forced march by the Japanese in World War Two. Along the way many of the prisoners were beaten or killed, with an estimated 54,000 surviving the march, before others died of disease or starvation upon arrival.
To commemorate the fallen and survivors of the march, 103-year-old Valdemar de Herrera, one of the oldest living marchers of the original Bataan, was present for the opening ceremony. After the ceremony, roughly 5,000 marchers departed at 6:30 a.m.
The marchers were separated into different categories. We participated in the civilian heavy division, which required us to each carry a pack weighing at least 35 pounds during the entire duration of the event. The march began in freezing temperatures, which made us Wisconsin residents right at home.
We met with another cadet from UW-Stevens Point ROTC, Nathan Murphy, making our group an even four as we set off onto the route.
Morale was high at the beginning, with music and conversation bubbling amongst everyone and jokes about potentially running the remainder of the course were echoed. Every two miles on the course were water and bathroom breaks, where volunteers handed out Gatorade, bananas, and oranges to marchers passing through. This was the first time that UWRF ROTC cadets passed through these points.
Founded in 2007, the ROTC program at UW-River Falls currently has 24 students, also referred to as cadets, enrolled. This Bataan March would be the first that the program has undertaken, with hopes of making it an annual event available for daring cadets.
And what an event it was. Mile 8 through 13 of the march was a constant uphill climb, testing our mettle as we creaked along. Jokes quickly rolled away at the face of the incline, and the tone of the event shifted to one of quiet struggle.
Mile thirteen breathed new life into all of us, where we stopped at the apex of the incline which had us at a 5,500-foot elevation. We stopped for a quick 20-minute rest and assessed our feet. At this point I was already sporting two raw blisters on my heels and had to dig into my bag for a remedy.
Our packs were filled with a plethora of supplies we would need to get through the march. Extra socks, band-aids, water, energy chews and granola bars became our lifelines. Attached to cadet Carstensen’s pack was a UW-River Falls flag waving in the New Mexico air, the only effortlessly moving object of the entire affair.
The sun had reared its head and was in full effect by this time of the march, however the weather was mild, stabilizing in the mid-50s.
Random conversations occurred throughout the day; many I hate to admit I have forgotten for they became one of the few means to drown out the pain in my feet and hips during the ordeal. We had conversations with Vietnam veterans, current active military personnel, and other ROTC programs from around the nation. Captain Trotter even said hello to some cadets from Texas A&M University, where he graduated in 2013.
As the miles and hours passed, we slowly began unraveling as some of us succumbed to pain and exhaustion. My springy step at the beginning devolved into a painful shuffle around mile 21 and I found myself marching on my own for the final five miles.
Those final miles were the most mentally exhausting of the day. The last four were nothing but a rocky road that was akin to walking on nails with my already-tender feet.
Walking those final miles, and the totality of the march, brought a new perspective to all of us. The original marchers of the Bataan were not allowed to have breaks, nor did they have people giving them water and food along their very different route over 80 years ago. It was not 26 miles, but nearly triple that which they had to endure. This realization became a source of motivation for all of us, and one that kept me tethered to the course in those final steps.
I finished the 26.2-mile march in 9 hours and 12 minutes, cadets Carstensen, Lorsung, and Murphy all finished in just over 9 hours, and Captain Trotter brought it home at 9 hours and 50 minutes.
The rest of the day, and the one following, was spent painfully waddling to our rental car, our hotel rooms, and through the airport on our way back to River Falls.
The trip was financed through the university, with support from Acting Dean of the College of Business and Economics Dawn Hukai and former College of Business and Economics Assistant Brandon Meyer, who allowed all of us to experience this grueling yet rewarding event.
The Bataan Death March is one of those experiences that challenges and enlightens those who choose to take it on. I was extremely fortunate to take part in this event, and it is one that hopefully continues for future members of UWRF ROTC.