412th MDG Airman completes 26.2-mile Bataan Memorial Death March in honor of grandfather

  • Published
  • By Giancarlo Casem
  • 412th Test Wing Public Affairs

As Staff Sgt. Wendy Updegrave crossed the finish line of the Bataan Memorial Death March, tears flowed. Not so much from the pain, but more from the memory of her grandfather and other survivors of the original Bataan Death March.

In 1942, Army Pfc. Samuel Kutalek survived 3 years and 4 months as a prisoner of war. He lived through a harrowing journey through the humid jungles of the Philippines and maltreatment from imperial Japanese soldiers. Kutalek would eventually become a guiding beacon in his granddaughter’s life, even after his passing.

More than 80 years later, Kutalek’s granddaughter honored his legacy by completing 26.2 miles of the Bataan Memorial Death March at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico, March 16.

“In 2016, when I first came into the military, I had a friend who did it who introduced me to the idea of the Memorial Death March, and I have been interested ever since because my grandpa was actually in the Bataan Death March,” explained Updegrave, Flight and Operational Medicine Clinic noncommissioned officer-in-charge, 412th Operational Medical Readiness Squadron.

Despite never having the chance to directly discuss the ordeal with her grandfather, the mental scars of the experience stayed with him throughout the rest of his life, she said. Updegrave spent quite a bit of time with her grandfather as she was growing up and has carried his memory with her every step of the way in her career.

“He was just very nervous about certain things. He also went through some medical issues,” she said. “I knew that he went through a lot of things, but I didn't know what exactly he went through until I started going through some of his things when he passed away.”

Updegrave spent quite a bit of time with her grandfather as she was growing up and has carried his memory with her every step of the way in her career.

"He raised me when I was a little kid," she recounted. "My mom was going through nursing school, so I spent the majority of my time with him up until he passed away."

Through her research and family accounts, she also learned about her granduncle, Paul Kutalek, who had enlisted into the Marine Corps after news of Sam’s capture reached their hometown of Nesquehoning, Pennsylvania. Paul and family friend, George Semanoff, had hoped to liberate Sam with the Marines, unfortunately both were killed in action during the Pacific campaign.

Updegrave had previously honored Paul and George’s sacrifice by visiting the Peace Memorial Park in Okinawa, Japan, and searched Paul’s name on the memorial wall.

Reflecting on her family's sacrifice, she emphasized the personal significance of her journey. "I had to do it, to honor them," she said, as she reflected on her family’s sacrifice and the significance of her personal journey.

Updegrave was encouraged to attempt this year’s Memorial Death March by her unit’s leadership as well as by Chief Master Sgt. Timothy Wieser, Air Force Test Center command chief. She was accompanied by her husband Tech. Sgt. Corey Updegrave, 412th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron.

“Honoring the sacrifice of service members who endured the harrowing Bataan Death March, Staff Sgt. Updegrave’s physical and mental tenacity was instrumental and carried a profound personal significance. I am extremely proud to serve with her,” Wieser said.

The Memorial Death March, spanning 26.2 miles through rugged terrain, tested her physical and mental fortitude. During the march, Updegrave brought along memorabilia of her grandfather to draw strength from.

"Knowing what my grandfather had gone through, this is easy," she asserted, drawing strength from his resilience.

Her journey served not only as a personal accomplishment but also as a reminder of the sacrifices made by previous generations which were highlighted during the March by photos of survivors displayed throughout the course.

"I cried out of pain, but the honor of everybody that was involved or who we were honoring to begin with, it was just overwhelming," she said. "It's amazing what you can endure when you have a purpose.”

Despite the physical challenges, she remains grateful for the experience and the opportunity to pay homage to her family's legacy. She also added the opportunity serving within the Air Force has afforded her and sees her service as another way to honor that legacy.

"I think that's how I honor him as I keep going through my military career and keep pressing even when things are hard and terrible," she shared, acknowledging the profound impact of her grandfather's influence on her life.

After more than 26 miles of rugged terrain over rocks, dirt and loose sand, the experience will have a positive long-term impact for Updegrave throughout her Air Force career she said. As she looks to the future, she carries with her the lessons learned from the Memorial Death March and the enduring legacy of her family's courage and sacrifice, she affirmed, "I could definitely keep doing this.”