Monday, May 25, 2009

Lest we forget: A WWII Bataan survivor's sketches

The current generation has vaguely heard there was something called World War II and most of them probably can't tell you what decade it was fought in, much less anything about it, like the Bataan Death March in the Philippines, where thousands of U.S. and Allied soldiers died. One of the survivors was an Army private named Ben Steele, whose story is told today in The New York Times.
IN the fall of 1940, Ben Steele, a 22-year-old Montana ranch hand, enlisted in the Army Air Corps at the prodding of his mother. A year later, his unit, the 19th Bombardment Group, was shipped to Clark Field in the Philippines, part of an unsuccessful American effort to deter Japanese aggression in the Pacific. (Soon after Private Steele arrived, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and then the Philippines.)

Private Steele then took part in the first major land battle for America in World War II, the battle for the peninsula of Bataan in the Philippine Islands — a 99-day fight that ended on April 9, 1942, in the surrender of more than 76,000 men under American command, the worst defeat in United States military history.

Afterward, the Japanese set their sick and starving American and Filipino captives on a 66-mile walk under a broiling sun to prison camp, an infamous trek now known as the Bataan Death March.

Early in his three years of captivity, Private Steele, crippled by malaria, jaundice, blood poisoning and beriberi, became an invalid in a prisoner-of-war hospital in Manila. One day during his slow recovery, he pulled a burned stick from a cooking fire and started making scratches on the concrete floor. With some tutoring from a fellow prisoner who was an engineer, those scratches turned into sketches, and soon cellmates were scrounging paper and stubs of pencil for him.

When Navy P.O.W. doctors noticed Private Steele’s talent, they suggested that he secretly begin to document their experience. He made 50 such sketches, which an Army chaplain hid in the false bottom of a Mass kit. The chaplain was then shipped to a prison camp in Japan, and en route his vessel was sunk by American aircraft. Though the chaplain survived, Private Steele’s sketches ended up at the bottom of the South China Sea.

When he returned home to Montana after the war, Mr. Steele began to recreate and refine his early work, filling scores of sketchbooks. His aim, he says, has always been “to remember” — to remember the more than 10,000 American prisoners from the Philippines who died in Japanese captivity from April 1942 to August 1945.
God help us, here we are today making a big deal politically out of three, count 'em, only three terrorists who were directly involved in the terrorists attacks on America on 9/11, who had water poured on them until they thought they were drowning. Waterboarding my hindquarters! What the Japanese did in WWII to our troops makes waterboarding sound like a picnic.

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