Today as I think of tomorrow’s significance I realize I was born into a “gifted” generation. History tends to define generations by their response to war. For those of us born during the Vietnam War, we’ve never experienced a military draft. The human rights, the freedoms we’ve experienced our entire lives were gifted to us. I wonder…what have we done with these gifts? Are we prepared to “pay it forward” as previous generations did for us? How will my generation be defined?
Tom Brokaw writes of the “Greatest Generation” and if I were to have met no one else from that generation other than a man by the name of Ben Steele, I would still agree with Mr. Brokaw’s assessment. Surely, a man such as Ben Steele would have to come from the “Greatest Generation.”
Benjamin Charles Steele was born November 17, 1917 to ranchers in Roundup, Montana. At the age of 24 and in the middle of the Second World War, Ben was living one of the things his generation would become known for – victory. But, you see, you have to know Ben to know that he tells the story somewhat differently. But that’s where the story takes another twist because to know Ben IS to know victory.
Ben was a member of the Army Air Corp’s 19th Bomb Group and in late 1941, they found themselves stationed at Clark Field in the Philippines. While many of the soldiers at Clark Field may have been dreaming of their loved ones back home on Christmas Day in 1941, orders were coming down that would change their lives forever. It was that day they were ordered to Bataan.
As the Japanese were zeroing in on General Douglas MacArthur’s headquarters in Corregidor, the United States government was deciding that America could not fight two fronts at the same time. Hitler would come first and then the Japanese. In March of 1942, General MacArthur was ordered out of the Philippines and to Australia. With this decision, came consequences unimaginable to the thousands of American soldiers left stranded in the Philippines. Already in a dire situation, for the next three and a half years, no supplies, no ammunition, no fuel, no food, no clothing, no help was sent to these American soldiers from the U.S. government. As one person said, “No Momma, No Papa, No Uncle Sam.”
With no changes of clothing or boots, food rations almost nonexistent, no ammunition coming to replace what had been used, no additional military help, and virtually no medicine to aid the sick and injured, these brave soldiers held the battle front at Bataan for nearly 4 months.
At that time in Japanese culture, to be a prisoner of war was to be one of the lowest creatures on earth deserving of no respect. To be a guard of these POW’s was considered to be the lowest level of rank within the Japanese military. Quentin Tarantino could not come up with anything as bloody and as horrifying as to how these Japanese soldiers were desensitized to the humanity of a prisoner of war. During World War II the mortality rate in German POW camps was 1.1%, but in Japanese POW camps the death rate was a shocking 38%.
For 9 days, in 100-degree heat with almost equal humidity, no hat, less than 2 cups of rice each day, and no water, Ben walked 60 miles shoulder to shoulder, body to body, among the 11,796 American, 66,000 Filipino, and 1,000 Chinese Filipino prisoners of war on what would become known later as the Bataan Death March. This nightmare of a march would leave a death trail of an estimated 3,000 Americans and 12,000 Filipinos. Those that survived, including Ben, were crammed sick body upon sick body in waiting railroad cars to be taken to Camp O’Donnell and then later to Cabanatuan, Japan, or other POW Camps. (Cabanatuan was the largest POW camp on foreign soil; 9,000 people lived there; 3,000 Americans died there.)
In June of 1942, Ben was selected as one of 325 men from Camp O’Donnell to be assigned to a Japanese work project known as the Tayabas Road Detail. With no shelter, virtually no food and no water, these men worked in the jungle day and night. Ben was only one of 50 to survive.
Survive…that he did. However, the worst and the worst yet were yet to come.
The harshness of the Tayabas Road Detail met its match in Ben Steele. Beri beri, malaria, blood poisoning, pneumonia, and dysentery all raged within Ben’s body. For the next eighteen months he continued to define this “Greatest Generation” while he interned in Bilibid Prison. In the midst of circumstances more horrible than I want to close my eyes to try to imagine, Ben began to draw the realities of what his mind had recorded.
Sometimes we discover gifts God has given us only when the hottest of heat is applied to our lives — kind of like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.
In Bilibid, something more powerful than the combination of beri beri, malaria, blood poisoning, pneumonia, and dysentery was at work within Ben. Something more powerful than the fear of death was growing inside of him. What was this all-powerful thing? It was the desire to honor. After all, Ben is from the “Greatest Generation” and that is what they taught the world – honor.
With no formal art training, Ben began to draw on whatever scraps of paper he could find images of what his eyes had seen and his mind worked overtime to process. These drawings were Ben’s way to honor his fallen comrades and record his experiences. At risk of death if discovered, Ben continued to pay tribute by secretly drawing the bravery of each soldier facing the most horrific of human cruelty. Sadly, all but two of Ben’s drawings were lost on a transport ship.
But Ben’s story of victory continues. And if you remember, the worst yet was yet to come.
Most Americans may not remember being taught about the hell ships of World War II. I certainly didn’t. The appropriately named hell ships transported prisoners of war from the islands in the Pacific to Japan or other destinations to work as forced labor. These prisoners were crammed, once again, sick body on top of sick body into cargo compartments located at the very bottoms of these ships. One bucket of rice and one bucket of dirty, salty, fish water would be lowered to the prisoners once a day. Because each bucket contained only enough for one ration per man in the compartments, when a prisoner would die the others would keep his body amongst them for as long as they could stand so the rations would not be cut back. As in the Death March, the railroad cars, the POW camps, the Tayabas Road Detail, and Bilibid Prison, the dead bodies began to pile up. Only now in the lowest compartments of these hell ships, there was no access to fresh air. This truly was Hell. But this is a story about victory and Hell has no place there.
Ben survived what he describes as the worst experience of all and went on to serve three months in a hard labor coal mining camp in Japan before the Japanese surrendered and the war was over. Upon Ben’s return to the United States, he made his way through the lines with all of the other prisoners of war reporting back in with the military. When he reached one of the desks, he was asked how many days he was a prisoner of war. Ben replied with the exact number. Not long after that Ben received a check in the mail from the United States government — $1.00 for each day he was a prisoner of war. Skills Ben learned while growing up on a ranch were put to use during his time in action in the Philippines. These skills saved the lives of many of his fellow soldiers and earned Ben the Silver Star. Sadly, to the best of my knowledge, this heroic medal has still never been presented to him.
Ben and his beautiful wife, Shirley settled in Billings, Montana and raised a family. Ben became and retired as a professor of art from Eastern Montana College, now known as Montana State University – Billings. He also recreated his drawings that were lost on the transport ship. His drawings and original oil paintings can be seen at Montana State University – Billings and online at www.artmontana.com/article/steele.
I once heard Ben say that the Americans fighting in the Philippines during that time didn’t win a victory over the Japanese because they were forced to surrender. Funny thing that word victory…I guess we often think of a military victory as one country winning a battle against another. Perhaps that’s where we lose sight of what makes up a collective generation. It’s individual human lives, each with meaning and each with purpose. Merriam-Webster defines victory as 1: the overcoming of an enemy or antagonist and 2: success in a struggle or endeavor against odds or difficulties. By both definitions, I believe, the collective individuals that survived those three and a half years in the Philippines achieved the victory for all of those left behind. Each survivor and each life lost has meaning and purpose. After all, this was the “Greatest Generation” and they taught the world the meaning of honor.
So, today as I think of tomorrow’s significance I wonder as collective individuals how are we defining our generation? Do we stand at attention with our hands over our hearts when we see our flag being raised? Do we teach our children that freedom is never free? When we drive by a cemetery filled with white tombstones do we acknowledge the lives given so that we may live out our human rights?
I ask these questions of myself because like many of you, I am entering into the second half of my life and I believe that our lives are defined by our actions not our intentions; and that our generation will be defined by our collective individual actions. Will the world be a better place because my generation lived?
To those that have served in the military, fought in a war, healing from injuries received in a war, or are now fighting in a war – THANK YOU. I am humbled in my mind to think of how different your life is from mine. With all of my heart – THANK YOU. To those that I know personally, my grandfather Sigurd Ronning and his brother Paul, both immigrants from Norway served in the American Army, while in the Army my grandfather helped build the Pacific Coast Highway; my own uncles that fought in World War II (Edwin and Leon, the Pacific fleet; Mike and Maurice, Europe; Glen, wounded in Iwo Jima; Andy, Army Air Corp; and George, bomber pilot both in WWII and the Korean War); to my friends Leonard Dahl, who fought in the Pacific in World War II and Eddie Boehm, Africa, WWII; to my friend Al Feldstein, Special Services artist, WWII; to my Dad’s cousin Orville Graslie, the Pacific WWII; to my Dad, who served in the Army; to Ken Fisher, who served with my Dad; to Lawrence Brotzel, Marines; to Jesse Hammer, Marines; to my uncle Harold, Army; to Captain Dale Dye, 3 tours in Vietnam; Dale Shack, Vietnam war hero; to my friend Robin Chadderdon, retired Air Force; to my friend, Tom Fortner, Army; Casey J. Porter, currently serving his 2nd tour in Iraq through Stop-Loss; to my younger friends that fought in Desert Storm; to all of the pilots who were veterans I flew with while I was a Flight Attendant; to all of the soldiers, SEALS, and military personnel that were passengers on the MACs and CAMs I worked; to all of your relatives and friends that have served in the military; and to Ben Steele:
My soul is heavy with the knowledge that my generation has been given a gift. It is my hope that we will be defined as a generation that used the gifts of education, science, communication, finances, travel, the media, journalism, freedom of speech, the right to vote, and the power of prayer among many others to further the cause of human rights and to leave this world a better place because we lived. It is my hope that the generations that come after us will feel the desire to say thank you.
Ben Steele, November 17, 2016 – September 25, 2016
The Great Raid, a film by John Dahl. The director’s cut is the version to watch. Included with the director’s cut DVD is additional material that is life impacting; at least it was for me.