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.
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.
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.
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.
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.