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SOU ROTC cadets learn a brutal lesson

Steven Sawyer didn’t have a typical start to spring break for a college senior.

The Southern Oregon University ROTC cadet came home from the Bataan Memorial Death March at the end of March with bruised hips, a face peeling from the sun and blisters that bled.

Even so, the march, which commemorates the Bataan Death March of World War II, “was an awesome experience, I’m really glad I did it,” Sawyer said.

Sunday afternoon, he was seated at a dining room table with six classmates, also cadets, who marched beside him. They were in Mae Nielsen’s house in Sams Valley, having lunch with her, Alexis and Norma Strong and myriad relatives, to tell their experiences commemorating the World War II event. Their hosts, meanwhile, experienced life under occupation during the war firsthand.

Across the table, Nielsen and the Strongs listened to the students, congratulating each one of them for finishing. Though their experience with the real march was also somewhat removed — the Strongs had lived on the Philippines’ Negros Island, separated from the Bataan peninsula on Luzon Island by several hundred miles — the family hosting the students that day nevertheless was familiar with the brutality of life under Japanese occupation.

“It gave you a taste of what the soldiers went through then?” Norma asked senior Jeffrey Chun.

“A little snippet of it,” he said.

The Bataan Death March was the forced movement of Filipino and American troops from the southern to the northern end of the Bataan peninsula by Japanese troops in 1942. An estimated 2,500 Filipino and 500 American soldiers died on the approximately 65-mile march, weakened by starvation and subjected to beatings, shootings and bayoneting by the Japanese troops. Another 26,000 Filipino and 1,500 American soldiers perished at Camp O’Donnell, the receiving point of the march.

The SOU cadets, who range in age from freshman Lily Jantzer to seniors Kelsey Jones and Rohan Cain, said participating in the annual commemorative event was a holistic challenge: of mind, body and spirit. More than 8,000 people started the march this year in White Sands, New Mexico — fewer finished it.

Perspective, it seems, helped the local cadets persevere.

“We know it doesn’t compare to anything (survivors) went through,” Jones said.

Some said the march and talks with survivors helped them realize the impact of their own roles as members of the armed forces.

“You reflect on the actual sacrifices that were made and are still being made,” Chun said.

The student’s officer, Maj. Joe Snyder, is chiefly responsible both for bringing this first group of SOU cadets to the memorial march and for connecting them with the Strongs and Nielsens for lunch to share stories. He thought it would be good for the students, particularly those who will become officers after graduation, to experience “a living history lesson,” as Jones called it.

“The only way we can move forward is if we remember the past,” he said. “Especially with the military.”

Although Alexis Strong was never enlisted in the U.S. military, at the age of 14 he was recruited on Negros Island to help with “mopping up” efforts after operations in rural areas. His niece, Mae Nielsen’s sister, also had helped U.S. forces by working as a spy.

Their experiences amount to a wealth of World War II stories — harder to find as time passes. Later, Alexis worked with Boeing on Project Apollo, which eventually landed the first people on the moon. He and Norma have lived in Rogue River for the past six years.

Their daughter, Dianne Strong-Summerhays, one of the many relatives present at the cadets’ lunch, helped compile and edit their stories into a book titled “Somewhere! The Sun is Shining.”

“It’s an amazing story,” she said. Her father shared a few of his memories with the students, including a story of rescuing a mistreated U.S. flag from Japanese troops — a potentially deadly risk.

“It gets me every time,” Strong-Summerhays said.

Snyder wants to continue bringing students to the memorial march, although next year, it’ll take place immediately before finals, sophomore Haleigh Wagman said. She might need to take a year off, as the march was exhausting enough that she’s not sure she could recover in time for tests.

“Even if it was like kindergarten coloring,” she said. “I’d probably fail.”

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Kaylee Tornay at ktornay@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497. Follow her on Twitter @ka_tornay.

Kaylee Tornay / For the TidingsROTC cadets, including (on far side of table from left) Rohan Cain, Steven Sawyer and Kelsey Jones listen as Norma Strong, right, discusses her family’s experiences in World War II. Her husband, Alexis Strong, is seated to her right.