Kings of the road
More than 40 years after their fabled 160-mile march to summer camp in Fort Hood, the cadets and their leader reflect on how it changed their lives.
The moment was greater than the men. Look back four decades, and you’ll see.
They were barely men at all, too young to know what those six days in June would mean to their lives, to their cadre, to their speck of a school from which would grow an urban university. They were 20 years old, couldn’t stop chasing girls, didn’t understand what they were about to do or appreciate what they had done when it was over—nor where some would go because of it.
Nothing between you and the ravages of cancer but the will to live. Nothing between you and a thousand Viet Cong but a paper-thin Huey. Nothing between you and adversity but a march you made.
would Capt. Latham think? Always in the back of their minds and at the front of
their team, the zealot, the motivator, leadership personified—you can’t let him
down, can you?
But this story isn’t about Willard Latham, and it’s less about his cadets than about a moment, a moment that the men didn’t make. The moment made them.
Nothing had prepared them. Not their first three years in ROTC training, not their strenuous physical training. Not even the rehearsal marches, which never took place in 100-degree heat and never exceeded 20 miles. They didn’t even know what they were rehearsing for.
A trip by bus would take a few hours. Nothing to it.
decided they’d march there.
“First of all, it was a motivational thing for the cadets. I thought that was a good way to make a splash at summer camp and at the same time set a mark for the rest of the cadets to follow. A hundred and sixty miles was a novel thing—you can’t just go out on a Saturday morning and do it. It gave them something to work for.”
idea was born in Korea, a world away from the tiny ASC campus. In the early days
of the U.S.-led war there, Latham had been part of an occupation force in Japan
that was among the first sent into combat in June 1950. The Americans were
unaccustomed to physical demands aside from afternoon recreation. Combat
conditioning wasn’t required to guard the Bank of Japan.
“We weren’t planning to fight a war anytime soon,” he said, “and suddenly there we were fighting one. We weren’t ready physically. I made a pledge to myself that any soldier serving with me would not have that problem.” His march plan had its opposition.
at 4th Army Headquarters, who supervised the Arlington State program, feared
that the cadets couldn’t complete the march or, worse, that someone would drop
dead en route. Officers at Fort Hood worried that the march would so exhaust the
Arlington cadets that they’d be useless for camp exercise. The proposal hardly
had unanimous support internally, either. Cadet Joel Ward called it “a mixed
“I can’t speak for the other guys,” he said, “but my reaction was, ‘You’ve got to be kidding!’ ”
had to sell the idea even to the program’s senior officer, who was retiring at
month’s end. Col. Kirk Brock, the professor of military science and tactics,
thought that if the cadets failed it would be a black eye for him and the
school. He relented, though, and the training began a year in advance, in the
summer of 1959.
Latham wouldn’t use valuable class time to prep for the march. Rather, he expected the cadets to formulate their own running program and dedicate their weekends to him. He led Saturday marches to Lake Arlington, where they might pause for a picnic before returning the five miles home.
for Fort Hood required completing two 20-mile marches—one north to Mosier
Valley, another south to Mansfield a week later. Sixteen cadets completed both
Among them was Ed MacConnell, stout and half-deaf. He doesn’t remember the glory of qualifying for the big march nor, later, the pride in the march itself. He remembers being a kid scared to death of Latham.
“It was his idea. The rest of us were just too dumb to resist. At 18, you don’t ask a lot of questions. We were just innocent kids who were intimidated by him. So off we went.”
Pellegrini draped on her fiancé, a lean, baby-faced cadet named Gene Weidemeyer.
Mothers, at once proud and uneasy, kissed their boys goodbye. Sixteen cadets
decked in military fatigues strapped on their web harnesses and pistol belts,
canteens and ponchos, and threw the rest of their gear in a carryall truck, Maj.
Oliver Hord behind the wheel. Latham spouted optimism to anyone who’d listen,
and who would dare disagree?
His idea, a year in the making, was coming together in a huddle behind College Hall. Representatives from four newspapers took it all in, snapping pictures and scrawling quotes.
The young men stopped for 10 minutes every two hours—about three times a day—for rest and rehydration. Occasionally they stopped in parks or at designated places in towns, but more often it was merely roadside. And the breaks weren’t always welcomed.
“Once we were marching, you didn’t want to stop,” Ward said. “When you were marching, your blisters didn’t hurt as much. When you stopped and then started again, that’s when they hurt.”
The cadets stopped for good that first night on the high school football field in Joshua, about 33 miles southwest of College Hall, and slept rolled up in their ponchos.
Day two. Marching resumed at 5 a.m. Six miles to Cleburne in Johnson County, for breakfast at a local café, was as far as Billy Clark could go. A late addition, Clark hadn’t completed as much training as the others and succumbed to painful blisters. Hord’s supply truck turned ambulance, and Clark was taken back to Arlington.
The others felt blisters, too.
Bob Darrah, the troop’s court jester, would sing to his, trying to lull them to sleep. Latham later described cadet Mike Marsh’s feet as looking like hamburger meat. “But he never complained and never stopped. He just kept right on going.”
MacConnell suffered two horseshoe-shaped beauties, and Ward nearly quit with Clark. He completed the march but lost both of his big toenails during camp.
Painful feet were only part of the problem. If possible, state Highway 174 between Cleburne and Lake Whitney was hotter than 157 had been. Near Rio Vista a heat inversion sent temperatures soaring to an estimated 125 degrees.
The group planned to camp for the night near Lake Whitney but didn’t get that far. Ferocious rain sent the cadets for cover under a spot called Kimball Bridge, 10 miles from the lake, where they built a campfire and cooked veal cutlets “and a few grasshoppers that got mixed in,” Latham said.
The fire also served as a clothes dryer. The cadets hung their rain-soaked shirts on a branch and went to sleep. Overnight, Marsh’s shirt fell into the fire, and he marched the next day in his poncho to avoid sunburn while a new shirt was trucked in from Arlington.
Day three. The marchers paused for a swim before heading out, and now Weidemeyer could go no farther. He had pulled a tendon in his knee.
The 14 remaining cadets continued to a roadside café for lunch. Act like gentlemen, Latham told his young soldiers. You’re in a public place. Darrah, the clown, wasn’t listening. When their waitress failed to bring water, he went to the counter and downed her pitcher, the ice and water soaking the front of his fatigues. The cadets howled. Latham was not amused.
The group made 21 more miles into Meridian and bedded down after devouring six watermelons. Heavy dew soaked their gear again.
Day four. Whistle-stop towns along the route had begun anticipating the cadets’ arrival. A Turnersville café fed them. The Chamber of Commerce manager in Gatesville served them lemonade. Mother Nature wasn’t as kind. Another storm hit just before midnight, and the cadets again sought shelter under a bridge.
A beam of light broke their sleep.
A farmer with a flashlight and a shotgun figured them for escapees from the nearby Gatesville State School for Boys. The farmer had caught runaways on his property before and intended to summon the Highway Patrol, but Hord convinced him that the cadets weren’t on the lam and meant no harm. Still, they didn’t sleep much that night and began marching again by 5 a.m., a day and a half from Fort Hood.
“In my mind,” Ward said, “I had no idea what 160 miles was. It was one step
in front of another and just keep going.”
North Fort Hood was a tent city set up for National Guard summer camp some 10 miles from the main base and 150 miles from Arlington State College. The cadets arrived there early in the morning of June 16, and Maj. Gen. Edward Farrand, the post commander at Fort Hood, met them. He made the trip from the center of the base to the rendezvous point, a spot called Royalty Ridge, by helicopter.
Farrand told them that he admired their “intestinal fortitude, which is commonly called guts. … I’m happy to see we still have Americans who can walk on their feet.”
He told Latham to “organize these kids so I can inspect them.” He walked up and down the file asking the cadets how they felt and then ordered them to the base hospital to get checked out. Some spent the bulk of their camp time there. Darrah missed much of camp having calluses cut off his feet. Zack Prince, a cadet and later UTA’s registrar, had Achilles’ tendon problems.
Those dismissed from the hospital fared a lot better. It was Thursday, and camp didn’t begin until Monday. They showered, ate, relaxed, took in a movie in town. “Anything to get in the air conditioning,” Ward said.
MacConnell and Rendleman drove the two hours back to Arlington with their girlfriends. “We had to be back at Fort Hood the following 24 hours,” MacConnell said, “but to us the whole thing had been a hoot.”
But MacConnell did suffer ill effects. Three years ago, doctors diagnosed him with melanoma and blamed it on extreme sun exposure as a youngster.
“And there I was, walking around out in the heat of the sun for six days,” he said. He’s “pretty much healthy” now.
The cadets had carte blanche around Fort Hood. They must have looked mean after all they endured, because their counterparts from other schools backed away when the Arlington State crew walked by. MacConnell and Rendleman, inseparable in those days, pumped up the volume by catching rattlesnakes and attaching the skins to their helmet liners.
Ward doesn’t remember how he got home at the end of camp. He only remembers that he didn’t march back.
“The march was an event,” Latham said. “The main thing I would like to think they got out of it was that you can do what you wish yourself to do. It gave them a standard of something to shoot for. When they finished, they could say, ‘I did that.’ When they went to summer camp, they were looking at 700 guys who couldn’t do it at that moment.”
And no one has done it since.
In the following years, UTA moved its campsite to Kansas, then Washington. Hardly walking distance. But the cadets’ arrival in Fort Hood has remained lore in the ROTC program. Newspaper clippings chronicling the events called them “pedestrian knights,” “kings,” “conquering heroes,” “winners.”
There were other winners that day, too. A Fort Worth Star-Telegram article states that “reliable sources say that some money changed hands in Arlington Thursday.”
Latham would become commandant of the Infantry School at Fort Benning, Ga., rising to the rank of major general, and all but a couple of the cadets served at least one tour of duty in the Army, some with distinction.
Art Cleveland became a medic and, later, dean of the College of Science at Columbus (Ga.) State University. Darrah, Jim Hunter and Glynn Osburn became colonels. So did Ward, who returned to UTA in the mid-1980s as professor of military science. Rendleman has been called a Vietnam “helicopter hero.”
They figure they have one good march left in them. When they enter the Hall of Honor, they’ll march into the ceremony in familiar formation—exactly as they did on the road to Fort Hood. Or they might employ the missing man formation to honor Darrah, who died of Lou Gehrig’s disease in 2002.
The important thing is that they’re there at all. It will be their first reunion since arriving at Royalty Ridge.
“To me, it’s recognition of us as a group in a way we’ve never been recognized,” Ward said. “I’m very honored. In ROTC, you’re a part of something. You’re in a squad or a unit. But we were none of that. We were just a bunch of guys. I came up with the name ‘Fort Hood Marchers’ just for lack of something else. I wish someone would think of something better. That’s a terrible name.”
Members of the Fort Hood Marchers still keep in touch, with Ward as their principal contact. They’re scattered now from Louisiana to Virginia and Georgia to all over Texas. But for a short lifetime on the dusty, steaming highways of Central Texas, they were as one in a moment that, in part, defined who some of them would become.
“Maybe they thought it was something a nutty captain had cooked up,” Latham said. “But they bonded together.”
It was a moment greater than they were.
— Danny Woodward