Seventy years ago this morning, some 2,000 officers and young soldiers strapped on 40-pound packs, picked up their rifles and stepped out on the second day of a 91-mile march.

Seventy years ago this morning, some 2,000 officers and young soldiers strapped on 40-pound packs, picked up their rifles and stepped out on the second day of a 91-mile march.

They had spent the first night bivouacked in Sams Valley after marching out of newly minted Camp White on Sept. 7, 1942, on the six-day hike through the Rogue and Applegate valleys.

They were members of the 91st Infantry Division commanded by Maj. Gen. Charles Gerhardt. The 91st was activated on Aug. 15 of that year.

"My father said the march was a kind of bonding experience for the men," said Portland resident Christine Hald Kovach, whose late father, Dr. Christian P. Hald of Ashland, participated in the march.

"It was really the start of their training," she added. "None of them had any military experience. This tested their physical condition. And it brought them all together as a unit."

It also brought many of them their first close encounters with nature.

"My husband said most of the guys got poison oak from sleeping in the bushes," recalled Iola Hawk of earlier conversations with her husband, Howard, who now has dementia.

"He was just about 20 then," she added. "But he had no complaints. He never complained about anything."

From Sams Valley, the young soldiers marched northwest to Bybee Springs, southwest to Wimer, across the Rogue River and into the Applegate Valley to Ruch.

On the last day, they marched through Jacksonville into Medford, where thousands greeted them as they paraded down Main Street.

"General Gerhardt, commander of the 91st, has personally led the column through its long march, carrying an infantry pack and a rifle," according to an article in the Mail Tribune on Sept. 11, 1942.

"Purpose of the march, headquarters explained, is to harden the soldiers to long, forced marches that may be a requisite in the combat zones," it added.

Staff Sgt. Hawk, who now lives in Eugene, would survive combat in Italy with the 91st, receiving a Bronze Star medal.

Lt. Hald, who would rise to colonel before retiring in 1975 from the military, would command I Company, 361st Infantry, in Algeria, and see combat in the Arno River and Po Valley campaigns in Italy. His medals included the Silver Star, Bronze Star and Purple Heart.

Camp White was built shortly after the United States entered World War II. It is now the site of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs' Southern Oregon Rehabilitation Center and Clinics in White City.

In the summer of 1942, Gerhardt, a West Point graduate known for being a stern taskmaster, was brought in to whip the young soldiers into fighting form.

"Those marches were Gerhardt's deal — marching was his philosophy," observed Robert "Bob" Palassou, 89, of Ashland, who arrived at Camp White on Nov. 20, 1942.

"When I got to Camp White, it was still being formed," he said. "My company, which would have about 200 guys, had less than 30 when I got there."

While Palassou missed the first march, he would be enlisted on a 93-mile march the following spring.

"Like that first one, we went cross-country," he recalled. "It seems like we marched everywhere."

And, like Hald, Pfc. Palassou would be deployed to North Africa, then on to Italy with the 91st. His medals would include a Purple Heart, having been wounded on four different occasions.

"A German tank got me and two buddies in a barn," he recalled of his worst wounds. "I was blown 35 feet into a stone wall."

Shrapnel sliced into his neck, back and left hip.

"That was Oct. 18, 1944," he said. "I remember dates. They are very important to me. I lost a lot of buddies during that war."

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at