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Surviving Bataan

May 2024
15min read

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.

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.

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.”

Steele’s wound hurt, but it was not as deep as he’d thought, and eventually the bleeding subsided. He’d tend to it when they stopped for the night, he told himself. Just keep going.

After five, perhaps six days, his column reached San Fernando and the railhead to prison camp. At the depot, the marchers found boxcars waiting, old French Mercis just big enough (about 20 feet long and roughly seven or eight feet tall) to carry roughly 40 men. Now the Japanese were shoving more than 100 men into these ancient wood-and-metal carriages, packing them shoulder to shoulder, belly to back, and slamming the doors shut, leaving them in the hot and stifling dark. By the time the trains reached their destination 22 miles up track at Capas, there were a number of corpses in each car.

From Capas they walked west a few miles to an old Philippine Army training camp the Japanese had converted to a POW pen: Camp O’Donnell, a steaming 617-acre tract of abandoned rice paddies and rolling grassland with rows of partially completed open-air barracks and buildings. O’Donnell was actually two camps separated by a road, some 60,000 Filipino POWs on one side, roughly 10,000 Americans on the other. As soon as he arrived, Steele spotted Q. P. Devore.

Q. P. had been lucky. He’d been part of a small group picked up by a Japanese truck on the way to San Fernando. The ride had spared him many of the deprivations of the march, and, compared to most of the others, he seemed in good shape, better at least than his emaciated buddy. Steele had lost so much weight that Q. P. thought he looked like a walking cadaver.

“Goddamn, Ben,” Q. P. said. “I can hardly recognize you. But don’t worry. The word around camp is, we’re gonna be out of here pretty soon. The Americans are gonna clean the Jap plows in 30 days.”

Weeks passed, weeks of hunger and thirst, disease and death. For water the camp had only one well with two small faucets, and thousands of men had to queue up for half a day or more in the broiling sun just to get one canteen full. Now, too, malaria, dysentery, and other diseases were beginning to take their toll.

The dying were placed in a hospital but called “Zero Ward,” a lazaretto and morgue in one. From there burial details picked up the bodies-40 a day by the first week in May—and carried them to the camp cemetery. It was grisly work (in the tropical heat the bodies would quickly swell and decompose, and the stench hung in the air and clung to the ground), but Steele wanted to keep busy, so he volunteered for the detail. The graves he helped dig were six feet wide, 10 to 25 feet long, and four to five feet deep, into which 10 to 20 corpses were pitched at a time.

After he’d been on the detail two weeks, he thought, “I should volunteer for some other work.” Get out of camp and perhaps find something to eat. Work parties were leaving O’Donnell all the time now, cultivating crops in nearby fields for the Japanese mess, doing one kind of labor or another. And often when they returned, the men smuggled back something edible.

On the afternoon of May 21, word spread that a work detail of 300 men was forming. Steele hopped on one of the waiting trucks. No one knew their destination, and no one likely cared, so long as it was out of O’Donnell.

The trucks carry them south to Manila, then south again to a train that took them to the township of Calauag, Quezon, on the wild, rain- swept Bicol Peninsula. At last they arrived at a shallow jungle river.

The guards gathered them on a rocky shelf that fanned out into the water. They were told to sleep there on the rocks.

“There’s nowhere to get out of the rain,” Steele thought. “This isn’t good.”

The next morning they learned they’d be breaking ground for a road—Tayabas Road— doing with picks, shovels, and wheelbarrows work meant to be done by trucks and bulldozers. Each day they marched into the jungle to move mounds of earth. Each night they returned to their bed of stones in the open, shivering in their sodden clothes, meat for legions of mosquitoes.

After eight weeks of this, 100 men were dead. Most of the rest, Steele among them, were so sick that they could not stand, and the Japanese folded the detail and shipped the survivors back to Manila, to Bilibid Prison in Manila, where a group of POW Navy doctors had set up a makeshift hospital.

Steele was delirious when the truck pulled into the prison yard. Someone was slipping arms under him now, lifting him up, setting him down on a stretcher. They carried him across an open area and into a building. The first thing he thought was, “I have a roof over my head.” They set the stretcher by a wall, spread a cotton pad on the concrete floor, and rolled him onto it. “How about some soup?” one of the corpsmen asked. The soup tasted good.

“Thank you,” Steele said, “thank you.” Then he began to weep.

His malaria had restricted the blood supply to his brain, and he was unconscious for long stretches of time. His beriberi was advancing rapidly; his ankles were swollen to the size of melons, and the edema had progressed from his legs to his chest and head. He had blood poisoning from a suppurating puncture wound from Tayabas Road, and the doctors thought they detected the first signs of gangrene. (During a moment of lucidity, he was sure he had heard one of them say, “You could lose that leg, you know? You hear, soldier?”) His lungs were gurgling and his temperature was spiking, sure signs of bronchial pneumonia. He still had dysentery, and he was jaundiced— a liver infection, the doctors said. Some days he knew he was alive; some days not.

On one such day a priest appeared: Father William T. Cummings, a short, plucky chaplain. He opened his Mass kit, taking out a prayer book, a rosary, and a tin of holy oil.

“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.

These days he’s long retired, living with his wife, Shirley, in a trim split-level below a wall of rimrocks near the college where he used to teach. Every day he tramps out to the studio behind his house to paint and draw. And as he does, the same thought always comes to him.

“I’m free,” he reminds himself. “I can go where I want, I can do what I want to do. It’s wonderful.”


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