- 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
“Through this holy anointing, may the Lord forgive you whatever sins you have committed. . . . Amen.” Ben Steele lay still. His eyes were closed, his senses swimming, but he could hear the voice and recognize the last rites. “I’m ready,” he thought.
A week later, he was still alive, and Cummings returned. “Okay, Ben,” the priest said. “Why don’t we try this again?”
Still he hung on, and slowly across the weeks that followed, he began to improve. After a month or more of lying on his back and staring at the ceiling and walls, he thought, “I’d better do something or I’ll go crazy.” So he dragged himself across the floor to the ashes of the cook fire, pulled out a burnt stick, and started to scratch lines on the floor. He’d al-ways been bewitched by the process of art, standing for hours as a child on the sidewalks of Roundup, Montana, watching itinerant artists execute 20- minute paintings to sell to the locals. As a teenage errand boy for an art supply company, he once had met the famous author-artist Will James, who had invited the boy into his studio to watch him draw. “Magic,” Steele had thought, watching a horse and rider come alive on James’s pad.
Steele’s prison floor scratches didn’t look like much at first, just rough black lines on the gray concrete. Then one day an engineer officer taught him about perspective and vanishing points, and the scratches began turning into shapes—horses, cows, sheep, ranch buildings, his beloved hills at Hawk Creek. Some of the men suggested that he start documenting their prison life and the horrors under which they all labored. A number of American officers were already undertaking secret chronicles of the enemy’s misdeeds. Now here was a young artist who could give their experiences pictorial reality. A priest named Duffy agreed to hide them in his Mass kit.
By early 1943 Steele was well enough to make his way around the prison compound. Later that year he began daylong work details at the docks, coming back exhausted but at least on his feet. After New Year 1944, he was reclassified from convalescent to well and temporarily transferred to a prison camp at Cabanatuan, north of Manila. That July he found himself on a draft scheduled for shipment as slave laborers into the heart of the enemy’s homeland.
Hell ships, the exhausted prisoners came to call them. Between January 1942 and July 1945 the Japanese transported 156 shiploads from battlefields and camps in the southwest Pacific to slave-labor sites in Japan and their conquered territories, stuffing the spaces below decks as if they were shipping livestock, often denying prisoners adequate air, food, and water.
Steele was crowded aboard the Canadian Inventor, an aging tub in the Japanese merchant fleet, on July 2, 1944. As he descended the companionway into the frightened, sweating mass below, he could see that he would barely have enough room to squat or sit, even with his legs drawn up tight against his chest. The only light was from the open hatch, and in the far reaches of the hold it was choking dark. “This is damn unbearable,” he thought.
The last 10 days of the journey were among the worst. Starving and sick men stared at one another, picking off fleas and killing bedbugs. Finally, on September 1, 62 days after boarding ship in Manila, the surviving prisoners, their beards long, hair matted, and skin covered with ulcers and open sores, stumbled down the gangway at Moji, Japan.
At the dock they were divided into work gangs, some 250 men being put on a train that proceeded east, then north to the coal-mining settlement of Omine Machi (“big mountain town”), whose rugged topography was a rich source of anthracite. They worked 12-hour shifts underground around the clock, 10 days at a stretch, with one day off—convict labor, picking, shoveling, hauling, and loading in a labyrinth of damp laterals, long diagonals, and cramped coal drifts a half mile below the surface. They worked sick, hungry, and hurt. Worked and waited.
They worked through the summer, wondering and waiting. Then, on the morning of August 6, they heard a great distant blast and felt a rumble: the first atomic bomb exploding over Hiroshima, 55 miles away. Ten days later, after breakfast, the Japanese commandant and the British major who was the senior Allied officer in camp called an assembly of prisoners in the mess hall. Japan had surrendered, the commandant announced. He was turning the camp over to the British major. The war was over.
At first there was quiet. Steele and his comrades just sat there and stared. For months the guards had been telling them, “You’ll be old men with canes by the time you get out of here,” and there had been moments without heart or hope, when they believed it. Now the enemy had surrendered. Just like that, after breakfast. A few men clapped politely. A few others began to weep. “Thank you, God,” some said.
Steele shut his eyes. “I haven’t seen the family since October 1940, almost five years,” he thought. “I wonder if they’re all still alive?”
He made it home for Thanksgiving. His family put on the biggest Thanksgiving dinner any of them could remember.
The sketchbooks are stacked on shelves and in closets, black buckram and hardbound, most of them. They date from his first days in art school, more than 30 volumes of trials and exercises-61 years of sketching and painting every day.
He cannot say why after six decades he still sketches the faces that followed him home from the camps, the faces of old comrades in prison rags, and the faces of the Japanese soldiers who herded them from place to place and kept them penned behind barbed wire.