BIDDLE AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, Pa. --
A team of Pennsylvania Guardsmen didn’t wait for Memorial Day to honor those who paid the ultimate price serving our country.
Eight hikers with ties to the 111th Attack Wing completed the 32nd annual Bataan Memorial Death March remotely by marching nearly 30 miles on a route from Philadelphia’s Independence Hall to Valley Forge National Historic Park April 17, 2021.
The march was more than a physical challenge. It was a way to reflect upon the original Bataan Death March, which killed approximately 9,000 Filipino and 1,000 American troops.
In a written message to his teammates before the event, retired Air National Guard Lt. Col. James Willliams, the former commander of the 111th Security Forces Squadron, explained the route’s significance and who it was designed to honor.
“We’re marching in memory of Tech. Sgt Joseph Szczepanski, who survived the Bataan Death March and 3.5 years as a prisoner of war,” said Williams. “Tech. Sgt Szczepanski was from the Bethlehem area, and he lied about his age to join the Army National Guard before World War II.”
Szczepanski eventually joined the Army Air Corps before shipping off to the Philippines, where he was taken prisoner April 10, 1942, Williams said. Five days later, Szczepanski began the forced march to Camp O’Donnell.
“Szczepanski was released on 12 September 1945,” said Williams, “And, he recuperated in the Valley Forge General Hospital in Pennsylvania, which is a nice correlation to our end point. His son, Rick Szczepanski, should be at the Valley Forge Park for our arrival.”
But before they could celebrate a hometown hero’s survival at a national park, the group had to cover more than a marathon on foot in less than ten hours.
They knew they needed more than just dry socks, snacks and sport drinks. So, they literally stacked the deck with some extra motivation.
“Because we marched in memory of Tech. Sgt. Joseph Szczepanski, we carried his photo with us for the entire march,” said retired Army National Guard 1st Sgt. Theresa Arentzen, who now works at the 111th ATKW as a volunteer support technician with Pennsylvania’s Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve, or ESGR. “We also had a stack of index cards containing facts about the original Bataan Death March that we read every two miles to help us reflect and stay motivated.”
"It was an absolute honor to walk as a team in remembrance of our Nation's POWs,” said Air National Guard Staff Sgt. Marie Haydak, a contracting noncommissioned officer with the 111th ATKW. “They truly gave all they had."
Arentzen echoed the sentiment.
"Personally, I felt that I needed to do this to remember and to honor my brothers-in-arms who went through this ordeal,” said Arentzen. “And, to never forget their pain and suffering so that we do not go down this path yet again."
The eight road warriors from Biddle Air National Guard Base in Horsham, Pennsylvania, successfully completed their journey to honoring Tech. Sgt. Szczepanski and those who endured the suffering of the Bataan Death March.
The group covered a 29.9-mile trek that spanned from Philadelphia’s concrete streets to Valley Forge National Park’s grassy fields in 9 hours, 18 minutes.
They were rewarded for their grit at the finish line.
“Mr. Richard Szczepanski presented us with pins to commemorate us becoming members of the American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor Memorial Society," said Arentzen. “I was completely humbled and honored.”
Arentzen said she carried away much more than a token of the feat they had accomplished. She said she had a deeper appreciation for the troops who endured the Bataan Death March.
"To finish, I felt wow what an accomplishment,” said Arentzen. “But the next morning, it really hit me when I woke up when I wanted too in the safely and comfort of my own home and placed my feet on the carpet. I was overcome with grief because I realized these men had to rollover, get themselves off the ground and do it all over again and again, depending on when they joined the march. This really hit home for me, and I said a silent prayer for them.”