- Historic Sites
After living through America’s worst defeat in World War II and the infamous death march, Army Private Ben Steele started drawing pictures of the images that haunted him.
Summer 2009 | Volume 59, Issue 2
On the night of April 8, in his command shack near Mariveles, Maj. Gen. Edward P. King, commanding all ground forces on Bataan, had decided that further resistance was pointless. His men were simply too sick and enervated to hold back the enemy. To avoid annihilation, King ordered his staff to spread the word that in the morning the 76,000 Filipino and American soldiers left on Bataan were to lay down their arms and hoist white flags.
When he awoke on the morning of April 9, Steele found himself among a small group of men, all strangers, on an old ammunition trail somewhere in the foothills of Mount Mariveles. The group had heard nothing of the order to capitulate, of course, and made ready for a last stand. Tired and hungry, Steele looked neither forward nor back. He was breathing, that was all. He had his rifle, his helmet, his life.
All at once up the trail came the sound of tanks. The Americans dropped to their bellies and fired: spitballs against steel. The tanks were very close now, close enough to rake the Americans’ position, and some of the stragglers decided they’d had enough. One of them draped a white undershirt over the muzzle of his rifle.
“This is it,” Steele thought. “It won’t be long now.” He had always imagined he’d be afraid at this moment, but he felt nothing. That was the strange part of it. No terror, no sadness, no dread. If he lived, fine, and if he didn’t . . .
The Japanese lined them up and started to search them. They looked like hard men, these enemy soldiers. “Hate,” thought Steele. “Hate is sticking out all over them.”
The Japanese herded their 76,000 prisoners into several concentrations along Bataan’s main north—south route, the Old National Road. Their plan was to march them from the tip of the peninsula 66 miles north to a railhead at San Fernando, where the prisoners would be put on trains to a prison camp northwest of Manila. Even for a well-nourished and physically fit soldier, such a passage over a bad road in the hot season would have been a test. For men already suffering from disease and malnutrition, who had been living and fighting on a few ounces of food a day for weeks, such a trek under an incendiary sun was lethal.
The Japanese chronically under- supplied their own troops and showed even less planning for harp, prisoners of war. Little enough food was supplied along the way, a few handfuls of rice and a swallow of tea perhaps, but the real problem was water. Almost every town along the road had an artesian well, but the guards were under orders not to stop. (The Japanese wanted to clear Bataan as quickly as possible before staging an assault on the island fortress of Corregidor at the mouth of Manila Bay.) Weak and now dehydrated, a number of men began to drop by the roadside. When they did, a screaming guard would rush up, brandishing a bayonet. Those wretched derelicts who could not struggle to their feet got the blade, often to the hilt.
By the time his column reached Limay, about a third of the way up the peninsula, Steele was drying up, gagging on his swollen tongue. He looked at the sun. Not a prairie sun, he thought. This one was hotter, less forgiving. No trees, no buildings, no shade. He stripped off his T-shirt and made a mantilla, but he was still choking.
“Hey,” he said to the man next to him, “gimme a drink, will ya?” The man kept walking.
“Come on, buddy, I’m in bad shape.”
Some men, looking at the corpses collecting along the road, prayed as they walked, but Steele, nominally a Roman Catholic, kept his mind on walking. He wasn’t angry at the Lord. He was just being realistic. Faith wasn’t going to feed him or slake his thirst. He had to focus on the next wallow or ditch with water in it or on that guard, the one just up ahead raising his rifle and aiming at a Filipino who had broken ranks to run for a stand of sugarcane. The bullet caught the poor kid in the back and sent him sprawling, and the guard, over him now, was pulling the trigger again.
“Okay, this may happen to me,” thought Steele, “but all these other guys are alive and I’m not any worse off than they are, so I’m going to hang in there as long as I can. If there’s going to be anybody left alive from this, I’m going to be one of them.”
Early afternoons were the worst. The blistering heat left him heavy- legged. Concentrate, he told himself. Left, right, left, right. Eyes straight. Don’t notice anything—like that blond-haired boy half collapsed on the shoulder, desperately trying to push himself to his knees, and the guard running up to finish him, grunting with the first thrust.
He tried to stay aloof. So many were dropping to the road, he thought, it was better not to get close to anyone. But north of Layac Junction, about 50 miles into the march, he lost his resolve and befriended a march mate. They had talked a bit while walking: about where they’d been, where they might be headed, what might happen when they got there. Talking made the walking easier, the heat a little less intense. Next afternoon on the road, he noticed his new friend beginning to wobble, and a mile or two later the man gave out and went down, grabbing for Steele’s leg.
“Come on, Ben—help me!”
He and another man hauled the dropout to his feet. They hadn’t gone far before a guard rushed up and shouted at them to let go. His helper obeyed, but for reasons beyond all understanding, Steele hung on, and the next thing he knew, his buttocks were on fire. He thought the guard’s blade had penetrated to his pelvis. Blood was beginning to course down his leg, and flies were starting to swarm the wound. He looked at the man he was holding, hoped he’d understand, then let him sink slowly to the road at the guard’s feet.
“No!” the man said. “No. Please.”