On Saturday, 9 November 2019, a group of Randolph-Macon Academy cadets accomplished something I have been wanting to do since my freshman year: the Bataan Death March Memorial Hike.
There are various ways in which we commemorate the 60,000-80,000 American and Filipino prisoners of war who were forced to walk more than 60 miles on 9 April 1945, an event during which thousands perished. For Air Force JROTC, cadets are challenged to honor the brave soldiers who experienced the Bataan Death March by hiking 14 miles within a designated time frame. When Ethan Mayo, Alex Tendler, and I learned of this challenge as freshmen, we were inspired to participate. Earning the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps Bataan Death March ribbon would be a way for us to honor them every day.
With the help of the rest of the High Flight team (cadets aspiring to become military officers), the logistics were arranged, and the Falcons (postgraduate cadets who are bound for the Air Force Academy) were invited. There was a total of 13 hikers: 12 cadets and Lt Col Joel Jones, USAF, Retired.
We left campus around 0700. I can say that everyone was dreading the 24-degree weather that we were about to face. We drove to Sloan Creek to take the Front Royal Appalachian Trail Junction. We started hiking around 0730 and were done with the first 9 miles at 1130. In the middle of the hike, our pace was slowly decreasing as we realized pretty much the entire trail was uphill. Moral was still high toward the end of the first side of the trail though, as we had music and motivation from other cadets going through the same struggle.
We hiked back to the bus and ate MREs provided by Mr. Todd Friewald. It took a while to actually convince myself to try vegetable crumble or a sausage patty out of a bag. Eventually, we all tried them and were pleasantly surprised that they didn't taste horrible.
At about 1230, we were back on the trail in the opposite direction. At this point, we had about 5.5 miles left to complete the hike. This turned out the be the easier side of the trail. This made moral higher as we reached our "2.75 miles left mark" in a shorter period of time. This side was all uphill but the incline was a lot less steep. We realized, after getting to our mark, it would be smooth sailing back downhill. This was the biggest burst of energy we had during the entire hike. With our rucksacks, we basically jogged up the trail until reaching 2.75 miles. We took a three-minute break to stop, take off any gear we needed to, and hydrate. Then, we turned a went back downhill to finish the hike. We got back to the bus at exactly 1400.
After the hike, regular pavement felt unfamiliar yet relieving. All we could think of afterwards was good food and a comfortable seat on the minibus. It's difficult to imagine being forced to march more than four times the distance we did. After our voluntary experience, it felt unfair to even attempt to compare our hike to the extreme conditions that prisoners of war had to endure. We all started in good health and drove to our destination with a set beginning and end. It's a lot harder to stay positive and motivated when you can't see a finish line. This hike gave us a greater understanding of an experience we would never otherwise have.
Upon returning to school, we were greeted by peers who were clear that they couldn't be paid to do what we had just done.
I wouldn't have wanted to do anything else to start my birthday.
The author, Donavan Heggs '21, and the video producer, Taylor Wreath '20, are both members of the High Flight program.