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.