Battling Bastards III (Ben Steele)

Reading or writing about events like Bataan, we often focus on man’s inhumanity to man – that dark side of our nature, which we often shun until memoir time. Throughout known history, our capacity for cruelty is well-documented. Genocide (killing to eliminate a group, race, ethnicity, religion, or language) is too common. While respecting victims of atrocities, I want to focus on survival, with one survivor in mind.

Ben enjoying it.

When survivors tell their story, they become windows to history, guiding and motivating our chant of never again. From their dark stories, we learn to prevent future atrocities. On the bright side, survival stories are inspirational. What others endure, survive, and subsequently achieve are symbolic of human resilience: that remarkable human physical and spiritual asset.

I discovered Benjamin Charles Steele long before I met him, as I was feeding my curiosity about Bataan by reading books. I only read five. “Only,” because so many books and articles have been written about the Death March, many by survivors or their families.

 

One of those books, Tears in the Darkness by Michael and Elizabeth Norman, focuses on Ben’s story. While the Normans included much more within the pages of their ten-year project, they trace Ben’s life experiences, particularly during the war years. I recommend it.

 

My signed copy

Born in 1917, Ben Steele grew up on his parent’s Montana ranch. The family lost the ranch during the Depression Years, when he was about 15. Ben continued to work as a ranch hand, which interrupted his education several times before he finally graduated from high school in 1939. The following year, Ben joined the Army Air Corps. Eighteen months later he was a prisoner of war (POW) in the Philippines.

Ben may have developed a passing interest in art when had delivered art supplies. But, he had little exposure, and no formal training. Ben received his formal art degrees after the war.

For much of his early POW time, Ben was ill (Beriberi, dysentery, pneumonia, blood poisoning, and malaria). He worried about adding mental illness to the list, as so many others had. So, he began to draw. Risking severe punishment or death to stay sane, Ben started a self-prescribed therapy to fight off life-threatening melancholy. He had seldom drawn anything during his life.

Feeling guilty about my unused art supplies.

Unknowingly, from his sick-bed in the wretched Bilibid Prison, he was launching a seventy-four-year, successful art and teaching career. This late high school graduate, Army enlistee, and future college professor, was barely hanging on to life. While starving and hardly existing in some of the bleakest living conditions imaginable, Ben used charcoal and sticks to do his first primitive drawings.

“I used to sit there day after day. I thought I’d lose my damn mind. I wanted something to do, so I started drawing with anything I could find to draw with. I’d draw on walls. People around me said, ‘Why don’t you draw the guys? You know, there are no photographs taken of this stuff.’ So, I started drawing stuff around the camp and sketches of people and portraits as close as I could. I wasn’t very skillful.” ~ Ben Steele

Eventually, Ben was moved to mainland Japan where he worked as slave labor in coal mines. The only two of his original drawings to survive the war were done there. The original drawings he did in the Philippines were in the possession of a fellow prisoner, catholic priest, and army chaplain, named Father Duffy. When the ship Duffy was on sank, the drawings ended up at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. A few years later, as he recovered in a Spokane, Washington, hospital, Ben reproduced his lost drawings from memory (part of his therapy).

When the US dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, Ben worked 75 miles south. He heard the blast. Soon the war ended. Ben and others were on the road home and toward recovery from the three-and-a-half-year ordeal. Ironically, some survivors eventually fell victim to mental and emotional problems resulting in suicide, death from substance abuse, or other such maladies. However, most survived, and I was fortunate enough to meet some of them.

Once a cowboy….always…

When Ben’s art was displayed in a building on White Sands Missile Range in 2011, I was there for my last Death March. By then I’d read Tears in the Darkness, and other books about Bataan. So, I knew Ben’s story.

When I went to see the art the day before the March, Ben was there. His daughter was escorting him in his wheel chair – he was 93. We shook hands. He signed my book about his art and we talked, mostly about his life as an artist.

I immediately knew I was talking to a Montana cowboy, who happened to have been a POW, college professor, well known artist, an American hero, and a witness to much about life’s realities.

At his core, this happy man who was pleased with life and was the same cowboy who joined the Army Air Corps 71 years earlier.

“Little things that probably bother a lot of people don’t bother me. I figure I’m probably living on a little borrowed time, and I’d better enjoy it!” ~ Ben Steele

Another WWII veteran I knew, Joe P., said virtually the same thing to me last year. Both men died in 2016, in their late 90s after living full and happy lives. Perhaps their life choices were reflected in the last three words I quoted from Ben, “…better enjoy it!”

Life has its ups and downs; reality in art, literature, history, and personal stories enable us to look both ways, to the dark, or to the light. Enjoy life, but mind the gaps.

The Battling Bastards, Part II

This is based on my experience with the Bataan Death March Marathon. It is the second of three posts on this subject. To read the first, click here. The next post in this series will focus on Ben Steele, Bataan Death March survivor, Montana cowboy, and artist.

Why Do This?

The doctor looked at me, with my wife listening, “You can get all the cardio you need walking. If you were on active duty, I would profile you so you could not run. I suggest you stop marathons, and consider not running at all. You will not have a heart attack. With this problem, you will likely be dead before you hit the ground.”

Before that, between ages 59 and 65, I’d completed 15 marathons. Four of those, I walked. Each took me about nine hours to finish, in the Chihuahua Desert, north of El Paso, Texas. Training for such endurance events is hard. Participating is fun, but demanding. I discovered the Bataan Death March Memorial Marathon when l was searching for an off-road, full marathon for walkers. About 85% of this “March” participants walk it.

In early March of 2008, we flew from San Antonio to El Paso, rented a car, and drove 45 miles north to the US Army post at White Sands Missile Range in southeast New Mexico. I checked in at registration, looked around the base, then drove 17 miles to Las Cruses for the night.

Well before dawn the next day, my wife took me back to White Sands and stayed with me as a hoard of 5,000 marchers and runners, plus many friends, and event staff descended on the large outdoor breakfast area, next to the starting-line assembly corral.

The Emotional Start

Sunrise and the start are at about 0600 hours. Everyone arrives long before dawn. After we parked, drank coffee, juice, and I scarfed up whatever I could eat, marathon ritual requires queuing up at one of the numerous port-a-potty toilets. I watched as some male participants strolled over to the golf course to give it a watering, I would have too, but they were run off by staff. It was dark, their backs were to us, it made the loo lines shorter, and the area had little grass. I didn’t see the problem, but dropped the idea.

Greeting Survivors at Start

The opening ceremony at sunrise was the most patriotic and emotionally stirring that I ever witnessed. I was in the starting corral by that time, and being surrounded by my tribe added to my feeling of being part of something special. After few short speeches, accolades, and expressions of gratitude; a low altitude, noisy flyover of fighter jets from Holloman Air Force Base marked the final countdown to the starting gun. The crowd got quieter as the excitement and tension grew.

Greeting Survivors at Start
Greeting Survivors at Start

We were startled by a loud, unexpected blast when the starting gun was a thunderous, awakening, cannon blast. This was an Army post, so of course. As we slowly worked our way through another narrow gate and into the crowded final corral, a marching band of kilted drummers and bagpipers led the parade of 5,000 hopefuls through the 15 feet wide, by 50 feet long, starting area. Lining the sides of the narrow start area, the Bataan Death March survivors, most sitting, old and frail former POWs shook hands and spoke with as many participants as possible. Since the Bataan Death March is 75 years old now, few, if any, actual survivors remain.

The Pipes and Drums Lead the Way

We heard a distinctive beep as each marcher walked over the starting strip. That sound is an electronic signal from a timing chip attached to a shoelace. I noticed a barefoot participant, who tied it to his ankle. I would see him two more times; once, struggling in agony just past the 10-mile marker. I notified the next staff member I saw. The next time he was riding on the back of a golf cart on his way to a medical tent. Since then, footwear has been required. The military is good at making rules for common sense. I’ve seen barefoot marathoners before, but they ran on paved roads. This was a rough desert environment.

Those wishing to run fast were out of the corral immediately after the band. Last to start were the “heavy” military and civilian groups, with each person carrying a 35-pound backpack, plus water and other consumables for the course of the day. The pack must weigh at least 35 pounds at the start and finish.

A Killer Experience

More Death March survivors were stationed along the route. The idea was for marchers to meet the survivors, shake hands, talk briefly, and then move on.

Meeting Death March Survivors

It normally goes like this as I take his outstretched hand, “Howdy, Sir. My name is Bill Reynolds. Thank you for serving our country and winning the war.”

Then, he might say, “Hello, Bill. My name is John Richards. Thank you for marching to honor me, my friends, and what we did.”

I always wanted to stand and talk longer, but others were lining up behind me.

Marathon Smoke Breaks?

While this is no race for a best time, top finishers within each category receive awards. Only a small percentage of participants run all 26.2 miles, and none of them run their fastest marathon. This event is a patriotic history lesson, a physical and mental challenge, an amazing sight to see, and a motivating experience. Most of the course is on Jeep trails more suitable for tanks. The ubiquitous sand mixed with irritating gravel and scree finds its way into all shoes and boots. Gaiters helped a little.

18 Miles Done

The six-mile, 1,200-foot climb to the half-way point, 13.1-miles into the march, is on Mineral Hill at 5,397 feet. It’s notorious for ending many a marcher’s day. By that time, dehydration, bloody blisters, twisted ankles, sun burns, human exhaustion, and all manner of mental and physical maladies are screaming at marchers to give it up and ride the golf cart to the finish line, which about 15% must do, if they’re not taken away in one of the many ambulances that continually haul off the more seriously ill and injured. Even the young and fit fall prey to this challenge when they fail to pace themselves, especially if they neglected training.

 

I had read about the infamous Sand Pits, which we descend into just after completing 20 miles. These arroyos are 15 to 20-foot deep ditches, lined and filled with several feet of washed-in, soft sand that made walking even more demanding.

Sand filled arroyo

These pits alone are a challenge to walk through, but after enduring six hours of arduous walking, it’s agony. The subfreezing morning high-desert temperatures were long-past, yielding to the sun and its rising mid-day heat, making those arroyos The Pits of Misery, indeed. I used my hiking poles as I felt my exhausted, 61-year-old aching body, painful feet, and stabbing blisters demand that I end this insanity.

Warriors

Many other marchers were combat veterans and wounded warriors, some who had been seriously injured. Seeing men and women with all sorts of physical and mental war injuries, many wearing various kinds of prostheses, some blind and being assisted by guides, but all doing what I was doing; I was emotionally moved, and I hushed the objecting voices in my head. I may have had more than 30 years on most of those folks, but I did not have to carry a spare leg in my backpack, in case my prosthesis broke or malfunctioned. I didn’t need a guide because I had been blinded by an IED in a foreign country.

Comrades

After 21 miles, my emotional state totally changed. I became weepy, extremely happy, and excited simultaneously. I felt honored and privileged to be where I was, doing what I was doing, and being with the people I was with. I felt guilty for complaining internally about my plight. Then, considering that the Death March survivors I had met faced 65 miles as POWs, starved, thirsty, beaten, and guarded by an enemy solder more than willing to kill them, I found the strength to put my burden behind me and finish this.

The Longest Three

Then, 23 miles in, the last big medical tent appeared as I managed to climb the hill out of the sand pits. The base was in sight. The finish line would be there. The final three-mile hike was on a long, flat, dusty, dirt road. It was hot, dry, and slow going. Eight hours had passed since the starting cannon was fired. I was walking on near-zero energy, constantly glancing up hoping to see some sign of the finish line, but I was only able to see the same view, with the now onerous Organ Mountains to the right.

Medical tents were busy

As I was dragging my old ass along, a young lady in full army combat uniform greeted me with encouraging words as she passed. I was thinking that her 35-pound pack must be more than 25% of her total body weight. Most of my pain numbed, but with every step I knew I had blisters.

Blister Treatment at Aid Station

After my first Death March, I discovered that I had the biggest blisters I’d ever seen on the bottom and top of both feet, four black toe nails (one would fall off), and sore heels. I was exhausted.

 

Going Home; I Shall Return

Over the following years, my motivation continued to grow as I learned more about the events of 1942, and the perils of the men and women who surrendered on Bataan and Corregidor. I’ve read on-line accounts and at least five books about the experiences of the survivors. I became an amateur expert of sorts, drawn to something that had occurred several years prior to my birth, but affected my life in ways that I still cannot explain, 75 years later.

Nine hours Later

The next day, at the El Paso airport, Death March Marathon participants are quickly spotted in two ways. First, while active duty military are in Battle Dress Uniforms (BDU), many others wear the distinctive tee-shirt given to each participant. The second give away is the distinctive Death March limp. In my case, it was both.

Overcoming the challenges and obstacles of life is difficult, not impossible.
In the process, always look both ways and mind the gaps.