Troops in South Korea conquer the Manchu mile
WARRIOR BASE, South Korea — At Mile 22 of 25 — give or take — things are looking up.
The hill rises steadily and steeply beyond the rice paddies, following a dirt road into a tangle of shrubs huddled under oak and cherry trees.
When our lead group of about 20 soldiers and guests reaches what appears to be the top, the trail banks right and climbs even higher.
“You call that a hill?” Maj. Shane Gries yells defiantly.
Yes, major, I call that a hill. My left calf, which feels like a singular mass of bruises, calls that a hill.
My right calf would call it a hill too, if it had any feeling left in it.
Another soldier and I begin losing ground on the pack.
Three miles from finishing the Manchu Mile. Too close to quit. But at this moment, I wonder if I’m going to be left behind in the dust.
Fifteen buses full of soldiers from the 2nd Infantry Division’s 2nd Battalion, 9th Infantry Regiment crossed the Imjin River just after sunset Monday night and stopped at a base surrounded only by farms and minefields.
Warrior Base’s main gate is a short walk from the barbed wire marking the Demilitarized Zone that separates the two Koreas. Its adjoining firing ranges have been operating since the Korean War, but the two-story barracks buildings are relatively new.
Each room in the buildings holds 50 double bunks, enough for the support personnel and 602 soldiers filing in for Tuesday’s hike.
The Manchu Mile tradition has gone through several incarnations, but the hike is now held twice annually. It commemorates the 9th Infantry Regiment’s long march in battle during the Chinese Boxer Rebellion in 1900.
Commander Lt. Col. Michael Rauhut is well-versed in Manchu history, and by the time his soldiers drop their rucksacks in their barracks, so are they. He greets a few of them as they head to chow with a smile and one of his favorite lines: “Remember, it’s only a ‘mile.’”
These soldiers are good enough at math to know that Rauhut is underestimating the full length of their full-gear hike. That’s why a few of the 99 soldiers in one of the barracks rooms were wondering why a civilian guy would be with them.
“They’re making you do this, too?” asked Pvt. Kyle Copeland, of headquarters company.
Soldiers who complete the hike earn a distinctive belt buckle adorned with the regiment’s Chinese dragon insignia. Second-timers, like Copeland, get a commander’s coin, while a third finish earns an Army Commendation Medal.
Copeland was matter-of-fact about his motive.
“I’m doing it because it’s my job.”
The lights came on at 5 a.m. Tuesday. The soldiers assembled at 6:30 a.m. in front of the gate, listening to words of encouragement from Rauhut and Command Sgt. Maj. Bobby Gallardo, followed by a safety briefing by Sgt. Maj. Eliodoro Perez.
“There will be a truck following to pick anyone up who falls behind … but you don’t want to be on that truck,” Perez said.
At 7 a.m., the command group marched out the main gate, followed by companies in 15-minute intervals. The first mile was marked off by quarter-mile signs.
They went quickly, as the command group established a pace between four and five miles an hour.
The pace slowed after the first rest stop near Mile 8, but not by much. By the second stop near Mile 13, most soldiers were covering their feet in whatever kept their emerging blisters from rubbing raw.
Pfc. Darius Luedtke was calf-deep in foot powder. Luedtke, a scout, is half-German and hiked 19 miles in a timed event while in the German army. He likes the Manchu Mile better because of its history and because it gives him time to think.
“I just think about random stuff,” Luedtke said. “Like what I’m doing, what I might do after the Army,” he said, just as he laced his boots a bit too tightly, snapping a shoelace.
“Yeah, maybe you ought to be thinking about your shoelaces,” joked Pfc. Carlos Esquivel.
By the Mile 19 rest stop, the overcast sky produced a steady drizzle.
Medics passed out ibuprofen like party favors. The soldiers savored the quick energy of apples and oranges while rubbing the hotspots and broken blisters on their feet.
“The last rest stop. It’s just that point where you wanna kill yourself,” Pfc. Jeff McIntyre said, who hiked with headquarters company.
McIntyre encourages his fellow soldiers by singing high-pitched hits from the Backstreet Boys, Journey and Limp Bizkit. But his tour de force was “Barbie Girl” by Danish one-hit wonder Aqua.
“I’m a Barbie girl, in a Barbie wur-ur-uld,” sang McIntyre, who most definitely is not shaped like a Barbie doll.
Soldiers hiking with him said they never once considered throwing him in one of the nearby minefields.
“Remember, it’s only a ‘mile.’”
By now, the soldiers have heard the mantra more times they can count.
In 1900, the 9th Infantry Regiment marched 85 miles through China in three days, wearing far less comfortable boots.
The Manchus lost their commander in the fight. His last words, “Keep up the fire,” are now the battalion’s motto.
They did keep firing, taking two days to capture the enemy fortress.
I thought about what they did while I hiked the last few miles of the Manchu Mile.
I thought about how I’d feel about doing it again the next day and then for a third day but adding an extra 10 miles, and then trying to see straight, shoot straight and capture a enemy fortress for the next 48 hours.
Rauhut is right. What we are doing, in comparison, is only a mile.
“You call that a hill?” Gries said.
“You see, now that we’re almost finished we can talk trash.”
But we weren’t finished. Two of us didn’t have the gas for a charge up the hill. We fell about 200 meters behind the pack, until the hill mercifully gave way. The soldier with me leaned over and said “OK, I’m ready to run.” In 20 seconds, we rejoined the pack.
The next few miles were less eventful, until someone cued the music from a fence line in the distance. We arrived after hiking 25 miles in seven hours to the sounds of Black Sabbath, followed by a little Bad Company.
“I feel like an 80-year-old man,” Luedtke said upon arriving.
But no one dropped to the ground. The aches and pains waited for the belt buckles, the coins, the handshakes and the hugs.
Capt. Guillermo Rojas recently joined the Army after coming over from the Air Force and couldn’t remember his longest hike before the Manchu Mile.
“Maybe half a mile?” Rojas half-joked. “It’s hard to explain. You don’t get any money for it. It’s just something very self-fulfilling. I’ll be 60 years old someday and I’ll be talking about doing the Manchu Mile.”
Even “I’m just doing my job” Copeland spoke with enthusiasm when he arrived with the headquarters company group.
“I’m happy that I did what I needed to do,” Copeland said. “Yeah, it sucked. But it was fun.”
The toughest part?
“The pain in my feet and McIntyre’s singing.”