JOINT BASE ANACOSTIA-BOLLING, D.C. --
The Bataan Memorial Death March (BMDM) is held annually at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexco. In military uniform and combat boots, participants in the Military Heavy category carry a rucksack weighing at least 35 pounds through a 26.2 mile course of elevation change, loose sand, and desert climate. This year, a team from The U.S. Air Force Band took on that challenge for the very first time.
The BMDM memorializes the Bataan Death March of WWII, which immediately followed the largest surrender of American and American-commanded soldiers on April 9, 1942. The POWs were forced to march approximately 65 miles through the Philippine island of Luzon. With many already suffering from malaria and malnutrition, thousands of soldiers succumbed to scorching weather conditions and brutal treatment. Many who reached the confinement camps did not survive to be liberated by US-Filipino forces in 1945. Since 1989, the BMDM has served as a living memorial, bringing marchers together from across the country to remember the heroes who served.
Senior Master Sgt. Bradley Bennett, a tenor vocalist with the Singing Sergeants, decided to train for the 2020 BMDM to commemorate two personal milestones: 20 years of service and his 50th birthday. The son of a B-24 pilot stationed in the Pacific in the final days of WWII, Sgt. Bennett planned to carry spent shell casings from his father’s military funeral with him on the march.
Sgt. Bennett extended an invitation for any member of The U.S. Air Force Band to join him in his training. He received interest from the unit’s First Sergeant, Master Sgt. Ruan Britts, as well as Chief Master Sgt. Deborah Volker of the Air Force Strings, Chief Master Sgt. Jennifer Cox of the Concert Band, and myself, Technical Sgt. Jilian McGreen of the Singing Sergeants. With exactly enough marchers to form a team, we registered as the first ever BMDM team from The U.S. Air Force Band. “I knew that I was no longer just doing it for myself,” says Sgt. Bennett, “I was a little farther down the path and I had to lead because it was no longer just about me.”
Chief Volker, a volunteer paramedic, first learned about the Bataan Death March from a patient who was a WWII veteran and a survivor of the march. “Something about the event really stuck with me,” she says, “Having run 7 marathons in the past, it seemed like a new challenge.” A recent breast cancer survivor, this year’s BMDM came at the right time for her. “I wanted to honor those brave soldiers who died during the Bataan Death March, and at the same time it would be a personal accomplishment, my way of proving to myself that I won.”
Over the course of six months, the team trained together and individually, both on station and off. Sgt. Bennett and I rucked together in several states on two coasts while on tour with the Singing Sergeants. “We trained in uniform,” says Sgt. Bennett, “because we wanted people to see, from the beaches of Miami to the state parks of California, squared away airmen getting after it, taking their training seriously, and projecting the warrior ethos.”
Through guidance from airmen in other units and some painful trial and error, team members learned how to select functional equipment, how to efficiently load a rucksack, and the superior importance of foot care. We learned to share our failures and successes, to rely on each other, and to encourage our teammates’ improvement. “We got in the habit of challenging each other. It helps with discipline and enjoyment when someone is counting on you to follow through and will celebrate the small victories with you. We improved tremendously and got faster, stronger, and more resilient.”
Unfortunately, the 2020 Bataan Memorial Death March was canceled four days before the event due to the increasing severity of the COVID-19 pandemic. On March 15, 2020 - the day the march was scheduled to occur - the first ever Bataan Memorial Death March team from The U.S. Air Force Band observed social distancing guidelines while completing our own 26.2 mile ruck march in a Maryland state park. “Nothing could cancel our resolve and determination to honor those POWs who were forced to march 65 miles,” says Chief Volker, “when they sacrificed their freedom and in many cases their lives.”
This year’s march was not what we imagined. We didn’t travel to New Mexico, arrive at the missile range hours before dawn, and ruck 26.2 miles with thousands of like-minded marchers. We didn’t climb Mineral Hill, traverse the Sand Pit, or test our abilities in the high desert. We couldn’t celebrate completion with crowds, comradery, and a shared meal. A cancelled event after six months of training is a crushing disappointment. But only through its cancellation could we learn that a challenging course and comradely marchers are not what’s ultimately important about the Bataan Memorial Death March.
What’s important is preserving the memory and honoring the fallen of the Bataan Death March. Despite an unprecedented international emergency, our team gathered in the only way we could to remember those who suffered on the Bataan peninsula 78 years ago. Chief Volker celebrated victory over cancer with an inspiring physical achievement. Sgt. Bennett honored his family history and marked significant personal milestones. As a team, we honored our commitments to each other and ourselves as we persevered through 26.2 miles of terrain. “I’m so proud of my teammates,” says Chief Cox, “They showed true dedication and perseverance.”
The Bataan Memorial Death March may not have happened as planned this year, but we came away from the experience as stronger people and better airmen. We know that we will make it to White Sands eventually and that The U.S. Air Force Band will be represented at the Bataan Memorial Death March for many years to come.