Surviving Bataan

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He is 91 years old now, among the handful of last men surviving from America’s worst military defeat, the fall of the Bataan Peninsula in the Philippines during that desperate winter and early spring of 1942.Ben Steele, a beanpole of a man, with warm brown eyes and a big smile, remembers it all: the final savage assault on Bataan, the shameful surrender of 76,000 sick and starving men, the unspeakable Death March to a railhead and prison camp, the lethal work details and “hell ships” to slave-labor sites in the enemy’s homeland. He remembers the beatings, the starvation, the deaths, all the sights, sounds, and smells—images he has been re-creating in his sketchbooks every day for 67 years. The books pile on shelves and in closets, sketch after sketch of prisoners of war and the Imperial hohei who held him captive for 1,244 days.

He cannot say why, after six decades, he still tries to recapture the faces that followed him home from the camps, the faces of old comrades in prison rags and the faces of the Japanese who herded them from place to place and penned them behind barbed wire and under watchtowers. Ben Steele of Billings, Montana, retired professor of art, feels no need to protest or testify. If he is bearing witness, it is only to himself, remembering the way a professional artist remembers, giving the past shape, line, and texture, then allowing those close to him, or those who pass by, to watch over his shoulder as his war unfolds.

He enlisted on the advice of his mother, Bess. In the late summer of 1940 the 22-year-old Steele was working as a camp tender at a large sheep outfit east of town. It was hard, sometimes filthy work, but the freedom of it made him happy—on his own every day, riding a horse or driving a buggy between the far flung camps of sheepherders, delivering mail and supplies, sleeping in the open, wrapped in an oilcloth, staring up at a huge sky studded with bright stars.

His mother, however, wanted more for her oldest son than saddle sores and broken dreams. That summer he took her advice (“You could learn something new,” she said) and became Pvt. Ben Steele, serial number 190-18-989, dispatcher and ground crew in the 7th Material Squadron, 19th Bombardment Group, Army Air Corps. A little more than a year later, on December 8, 1941, he found himself at Clark Field in the Philippine Islands.

America had been rushing men and materiel to the Philippines to deter Japanese aggression. The Japanese, meanwhile, had been planning to conquer the oil- and mineral- rich territories of the South Pacific. The Philippines, which straddled their line of communication, was among their primary targets.

Sometime after noon on December 8, the day after a task force attacked the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, squadrons of Japanese fighters and bombers appeared above Clark Field on the island of Luzon. Steele and his comrades on the ground looked up at the perfect V formations overhead and thought they were friendly air craft. Then the men spotted small silver sparkles arcing down. Bombs!

“Japanese!” he heard someone yell. “Take cover!”

In less than an hour, the raiders destroyed most of Douglas MacArthur’s Far East Air Force, reducing Clark to an airplane junkyard, its runways and aprons littered with pieces of burning, smoking B-17 bombers and fighters. (Anticipating an attack, MacArthur’s air commander had ordered the bombers aloft that morning, but they were running low on fuel and had returned to Clark just before Japanese aircraft appeared over the field.)

That night Steele and his friend, Q. P. Devore of Yuma County, Colorado, wandered into what was left of their barrack. “They dropped so damn many bombs on us,” Steele said, “the sides of the trenches were caving in. They really demolished this place. They got everything.”

Two weeks later, on December 22, the Japanese Imperial Army began to put 43,000 hohei (infantrymen) ashore on the big island of Luzon. MacArthur had hoped to defeat the enemy at the beaches, but, faced by landings on two coasts, he quickly abandoned that scheme and withdrew his forces to Bataan.

The withdrawal was well executed, but the general botched his logistics, leaving his food behind. The 12,000 American and 68,000 Filipino fighting men on Bataan, further encumbered by 26,000 refugees, soon found themselves living and fighting on half rations, a scant 24 ounces of food a day—mostly rice and canned tuna flakes. From January 3, 1942, to the beginning of March, the Japanese hurled themselves against the Filipino and American front lines on Bataan, suffering horrendous casualties without gaining much ground. Then they withdrew for a month to refit and reinforce, and on April 3 they launched a final assault that broke the American line in the middle.

The Army Air Corps boys, who had been pressed into service as provisional infantry, were on the south bank of the San Vicente River when the Japanese hit them on April 3.

“Fix bayonets!” Steele heard an officer yell. And in no time, the enemy had turned their flank. The survivors fell back to the Alangan River and dug in at dark. In the morning the Japanese attacked again.

“They’re coming in waves,” said Q. P Devore.

“Must be a thousand of them,” thought Ben Steele.

“Whaah!” the Japanese yelled as they charged upslope at them. “Whaah!”

Soon all Steele could hear was the sound of his own footfalls pounding south. It was dark, and he and Q. P had become separated after stopping at a stream to fill their canteens.