By REBECCA BRITTINGHAM
The Bataan Death March Memorial Walk
On April 7, 2012, the air was clear without a cloud in the sky. Dawn had just broken. A cool breeze tickled the leaves as over 200 people gathered at the Dismal Swamp Trail to participate in the Bataan Death March Memorial Walk organized by Sgt. Major Matthew Schweers. What started out as a small family idea, evolved into a large community event when Carl Dozier encouraged them to open the event to the public. The event included the Chesapeake mayor, civilians, military men and women, and both the sheriff and fire departments and has impacted the entire Chesapeake community.
Schweers stood in awe as he watched the crowd of participants including Capt. Erik Ross and crew members of the USS Bataan wave their banners enthusiastically. The USS Bataan, an LHD-5 Wasp-class amphibious assault ship, was commissioned in 1997 to honor the defense of the Bataan Peninsula in the Philippines during the early days of US involvement in World War II.
In the background you could hear TAPS played by Retired Fire Chief Steve Best, while representatives from the McArthur Museum educated students about World War II. When participants finished their 17-mile; 5-mile or 1-mile walk, they all gathered around an honored guest, Bataan survivor Mr. John Sims from Aberdeen, NC as he shared his story.
The Schweers family was overwhelmed by the love and support they received from the people of Chesapeake. Schweers’ vision to organize a Memorial March was inspired several years ago after attending a similar event in New Mexico as well as visiting the location of the original Death March in the Philippines. Upon returning to Chesapeake, Schweers searched for an organization that commemorated those soldiers, but he could not find one. Therefore, he decided to create an event that would pay tribute to them. “I wanted to make it a Chesapeake specific event,” Schweers said.
For the past 28 years, Sgt. Major Matthew Schweers has served this country valiantly as a member of the USS Special Operations Command (SOCOM). The Special Operations Forces are the elite commandoes in the U.S. military who are called upon to perform some of the most difficult tasks in the armed forces.
During his service in the military, Schweers says that he has lost several friends, witnessed many unpleasant sights, and experienced heart ache that he would never wish upon anyone, but none of these experiences and painful memories compare to the pain that the World War II veterans at Bataan endured. For this reason, Schweers and his wife Grace have made it their mission to create an event that commemorates their sacrifice.
The Bataan Death March of 1942 followed the end of the three-month Battle of Bataan when the Japanese transferred 60,000 Filipino and 15,000 American POWs to Camp O’Donnell. Unfortunately, during the transfer thousands of soldiers perished, unable to withstand the harsh traveling conditions and the severe physical and emotional harassment. Schweers, understanding the pain of war through his own personal journey, organized the Bataan Death March Memorial Walk to honor those who had fallen during World War II and their families. Schweers says, “I want kids my kids’ age to appreciate what families were going through during World War II, and this is just one event that we can use as a rally cry.”
Schweers resides in the heart of Chesapeake with his wife, Grace, of 22 years and two of their four children; Stefan a sophomore at Grassfield High school and Sean who is an 8th grader at Great Bridge Middle School. Schweers has two other children, Mary who is a junior at the University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW) and Megan who resides in San Antonio, Texas with her husband.
Although the Schweers family has only been in Chesapeake for two years, Chesapeake is their home and they have made a point to be involved. In addition to serving with the Special Forces, Schweers is also actively involved with the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), which is a fraternal organization for veterans. Grace, in addition to serving with her husband, is also involved with the Women’s Republican Club of Chesapeake. Meanwhile, Sean plays soccer with the Chesapeake United team and Stefan competes with the Grassfield Wrestling Team.
After serving 28 years in the military, this summer, Sgt. Major Schweers will retire here in Chesapeake to devote more time to his family and other military organizations. Schweers is a certified free fall jump master and a true military hero who puts others ahead of himself and willingly risks his life to protect others. Over the course of his military career, Schweers has been awarded a Bronze Star, five Meritorious Service Medals (MSM) which are awarded to members of the Armed Forces for outstanding non-combat meritorious achievement or services, and the Combat Infantry Badge. As he retires, he has a vision to continue the legacy of the World War II veterans, especially those involved in the Bataan Death March of 1942. “It is important that we don’t forget them,” Schweers said.
The great success of April 7th has encouraged the Schweers family to make it an annual event. This year, the Bataan Death March Memorial Walk will be held on April 27th at the Dismal Swamp Trail, Chesapeake. It is an event commemorating the 71st Anniversary of the Bataan Death March of World War II. This is event is open to everyone.
Participation is free, but there will be an opportunity to donate to Mountain Eagles a non-profit organization which sponsors wounded soldiers in Virginia and West Virginia and Answering the Cry of the Poor (ANCOP), a nonprofit charity that helps families in need. Register online at: firstname.lastname@example.org or on Facebook @ Bataan Death March.
Sgt. Major Schweers – The Citizen of Chesapeake salutes you and thanks you for your service to our nation.