The Life March

The last living Bataan Death March survivor in Brainerd – and, one suspects, one of few remaining anywhere – turns 100:

A once unthinkable centennial looms large on Walt Straka’s calendar.
It’s led to a host of reflections for the former prisoner of war, who didn’t believe he had a snowball’s chance of surviving Bataan, let alone 10 years after the war.
Let alone to the age of 100.
But, nevertheless, it’s real and it’s here. On Thursday, Oct. 24, Walt Straka is 100 years old, the last Minnesotan survivor of the 60-mile journey of torture and death, followed by 43 months of incomprehensible captivity in sub-human conditions. He also stands among the few remaining members of a shrinking club: the veterans of World War II and all their living, breathing connections to a century of seismic changes and events.
“Oh God, I never dreamt I’d ever get that old,” Walt said. “I never thought I’d get there. It’s almost unbelievable. It’s almost unbelievable. I’m happy. I’m just thankful to be alive.

It needs to be pointed out that Brainerd had a higher than normal concentration of Bataan survivors; a National Guard tank battalion from the town was sent to the Philippines and fought against the Japanese invasion in the opening weeks of the war. 64 left Brainerd; three died in action, 29 more in captivity.

I grew up influenced by these people, pretty much daily; several of my high school teachers, and principal, were veterans. They didn’t talk much about the war – some showed it (one teacher still flattened out on the ground when some idiot would pop a paper bag behind him). But the examples they set, behaviors learned during the best years of their lives spent fighting overseas, that stuck with me. Calm down. Focus. Get your damn job done. Your feelings and 50 cents will get you a cup of coffee – what do you have to deliver tangibly?

Happy birthday, Walt Straka, and as many more as you can manage, God willing.

12 thoughts on “The Life March

  1. I fulfilled a bucket list item last summer when I visited Omaha Beach and the American Cemetery in Normandy. Nobody in my family fought or died there, or in WWII, but it is truly a holy experience. Everybody visiting the cemetery whispers, and almost all the tourists were my age or younger.

  2. A few years ago, one of my customer’s father was a prisoner of the Germans in Europe. He weighed 228 pounds when he was captured and 100 when he got out. He was captured during the Battle of the Bulge and said that the camp commandant and all but one of his staff, knew that Germany was losing the war and except for the meager food. treated him and the other 100 plus prisoners fairly well. According to his account, Allied air power disrupted the supply runs so much that even the Germans ate sparsely.

    A little closer to home, during a genealogical search, my niece learned that we have a family member buried near Lorraine, France. He was a gunner on a B-17 which was shot down near there. Apparently, either no one in his immediate family had the money to bring his body home or they didn’t want to disturb the dead.

  3. Happy birthday Walt Straka. I grew up in a village just 50 miles from Brainerd. One of the local vets, Ellis McKinley, survived the
    Bataan death march. Every Memorial Day, Veterans Day, any event that needed an honor guard you’d find Ellis leading it. He stood about 6’2″ and ramrod straight. He never talked about his experience to me but it obviously affected him as he was a fixture whenever an honor guard was called for. And he was damn serious about getting it right. His uniform was perfectly pressed. The man had a lot of stripes on his arm and the other vets towed the line attentively.

    Secondly I’d like to mention that I met Col. Glenn Frazier a few years ago. We happened to visit a bookstore in Mobile where he was signing his story. If you want to know more about the Bataan Death March I recommend his book.

  4. a 10 minute talk with a idiot from my generation would either set them straight or give this guy a heart attack, I cant determine which is more likely.

  5. NW, going to Normandy is on my bucket list as well. Auchwitz as well, you can never forget the past.

  6. bosshoss, my maternal grandfather was a green recuit at the Battle of the Bulge. He got shot in the leg, then had a shot bouce off his belt buckle after they bandaged him back up and threw him back out there. He sadly never talked about it though, but you cant really blame the guy.

  7. I was at the State Veteran’s Cemetery in Little Falls today. In the front row of one of the sections, there is a headstone for an empty grave; a man missing in action from the Bataan Death March.

    God bless Mr. Straka, and his family.

  8. POD;

    Yea, I get it.

    I grew up in a neighborhood in Bloomington that had several Korean War vets, including my dad, living there. One of them was at the Chosin reservoir. Funny thing about Frank was that he was the life of the party type of guy, a very successful salesman and a great dad and husband. His kids told me that he had occasional nightmares and would never talk about it.

    Another one was on Pork Chop Hill. Same thing as Frank, only he worked for an excavating company.

    My dad finished basic just before hostilities ended, so he stayed stateside. He ended up on President Truman’s color guard and was one of Black Jack Pershing’s honor guards during his funeral.

  9. A Colonel Taylor told the men frozen by the carnage that there were only two types of men on that beach; those that were dead, and those that were about to be. They had to get off the beach and up those bluffs. Eventually, all of them made it: the ones that fought their way up, and the ones that were carried there and laid in a temporary cemetery that ultimately was dedicated as the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial.

    You’ve seen photos of the rows upon rows of white headstones, in crosses and Stars of David, 9,380 of them, on the immaculately kept, impossibly green grass. I can’t even begin to do it justice of what it’s like being there in person. A perpetual hush ias thick as the grass is over the place. I, and the guide, took off our hats as we came through the plaza and walked down closer to the reflecting pool with our group. The guide spoke in soft tones as we all leaned in to listen. The sky had become a brilliant, crystalline blue, and there was so much for the pool and for us to reflect upon. Looking to my right, a wide path leads through an opening in the trees, through which you can see the English Channel, and if you go out far enough, Omaha Beach itself.

    Before you even get that far, though, you walk through another crescent, in limestone, that cups the garden and steps that lead up to the plaza at the head of memorial. The curving, light-colored walls are known as The Walls of the Missing. Carved into these are the names of the 1,557 men that the Army knows came to Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944 – but of whom no trace could later be found. Over the years, bits and pieces have been identified as technology has improved. When a missing man is identified, a black rosette is placed by his name on the wall. The most recent recovery was a man from Minnesota, Staff Sergeant Gerald “Jerry” Jacobson, who was returned in 2017. I found his name on the wall and included it here.

    Dominating the plaza is a black sculpture of a man ascending to the clouds. Entitled “The Spirit of American Youth Rising From the Water”, it signifies the sacrifice the youth of our nation made on foreign soil. I tried to get a good, up-close photo of it, but the bright sky – and the limitations of an iPhone screen – made it kind of difficult. I tried to massage the image a bit with filters, and in doing so created an image of the sculpture so black that it looked more like a hole in the sky, than a sculpture. I decided that described the loss to all the families, and used that one.

  10. NW,

    Your description of the cemetery, is exactly how friends that have been there describe it. They have said there isn’t a weed in the grass and that the entire grounds are meticulously and reverently maintained.

    Interestingly enough, my parents and sadly, a few friends, are buried at Ft. Snelling. One day this summer, I stopped to put flowers on my parent’s grave and spoke with a couple of the maintenance people that were quietly working away. They spoke in low tones, despite the aircraft noise and shared with me that they don’t even smoke around the graves, moving to the road or waiting until their breaks or lunch to do so.

  11. My dad’s dad was a career master sergeant in the army. He was also a damned good shot with a pistol. He joined up in 1932 when the shoe factory closed down in his Midwestern home town. He was a lucky guy, he spent WW2 on Oahu, teaching marksmanship.
    He was de-mobbed in 1946 and got a job with the railroad. He was laid off in 1948 & signed up again. At that point he was after the pension.
    Then the Korean war came along. He spent a few months in Korea, behind the lines, and the story he told was that he went out into the hills with a VIP general to help him site in his pistol. As they bounced down the dirt road in a jeep, they flushed out some pheasants (grandad said the korean ringnecks are just like the prairie pheasants in the US). Grandad drew his 45, and nonchalantly shot the head off one of the pheasants. The VIP general was so impressed he thought grandad was too valuable to risk losing him in Korea, so he arranged a transfer to Leavenworth to teach marksmanship.
    My stepmom’s dad was a marine who was in the landing at Guadalcanal. He had a bad back that got him 4F’d in WW2. But he was a milk man, and, the way he said it, he got so much crap from the war widows on his (literal) milk run that he joined the marines. The marines, back then, didn’t care about 4F status. He didn’t talk about the war much.
    But he did tell me something that I do remember: after the war, in 1946 or thenabouts, he was living in a quonset hut with his young family. He ended up in a hand-shake line to meet politiciians, and spent a few seconds with Hubert Humphrey. He complained about the housing shortage.
    Twenty years later, step-grand-dad was a VP salesman at Cloverleaf. Humphrey gave a speech to the salesmen, and at the meet-n-greet, Humphrey remembered him, asked about his housing prospects, even remembered the names of his children.
    Now that is a politician.

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