Death march survivor looks back
With each passing year Bataan Death March survivor Walt Straka marvels at his own good fortune as he remembers his fellow soldiers who died during the brutal trek to a Japanese prison camp at World War II’s outset. The deadly march came after ill-equipped and outmanned U.S. soldiers on the Philippine peninsula of Bataan were ordered to surrender to the Japanese on April 9, 1942.
Seventy years later, Straka lives on his own, drives a car and does his own grocery shopping. While he’s not immune from the aches and pains that accompany most 92-year-olds, he says he’s relatively pain free.
“I just thank God every night, I don’t have it,” he said of the chronic pain, noting that many his age are in wheelchairs or hobble as they walk.
During the grueling march Straka suffered from malaria, dysentery and malnourishment. Physical abuse was part of their everyday lives. A Japanese soldier once rammed a rifle into his back when he stepped out of line. Reports have varied but it’s estimated thousands of U.S. and Filipino soldiers died on the approximate 60-mile journey to a Japanese prison camp.
“You didn’t get any food,” Straka recalled in a recent phone call from his Texas vacation home. “You kept getting weaker and weaker. I lay in bed and wonder how in the hell I survived it. I absolutely can’t hardly fathom it.”
The suffering didn’t end when he returned home. For years, Straka was plagued with nightmares stemming from the horrors he had witnessed as a prisoner. The cruelty, Straka said, was almost unimaginable.
“It’s hard to believe any human would treat another human like that,” he said recalling his wartime captivity. “I’m fighting for my country, I’m a kid. I didn’t start the war.”
The term Post Traumatic Stress Disorder hadn’t yet been coined in the 1950s but it’s a good bet many of the Bataan Death March survivors who were lucky enough to return home suffered from that condition. Many of his fellow prisoners who returned home died in their 50s, years before their peers who had endured the ravages of war. It was hard for them not to rely on alcohol or tobacco to an excessive degree, Straka said.
“They couldn’t control their smoking,” he said.
Straka said he empathizes with modern era veterans who return home and develop mental health problems and sometimes wondered if the hard knocks the World War II soldiers suffered during the Great Depression made them a little stronger.
“I don’t think they’re as tough as we were,” he said. “Most kids (in the Depression) didn’t have enough to eat. I know how soft my kids had it compared to me. I think that’s probably got a lot to do with it. You didn’t baby people. People had to work.”
Straka served with Brainerd’s 34th Tank Company, Minnesota National Guard, which had been federalized, combined with other units and redesignated as the 194th Tank Battalion. It was the first tank unit in the far east before World War II started. The unit received three Presidential Unit Citations for its defense of vital positions before being ordered to surrender.
According to a 2010 proclamation issued by the state of Minnesota, of 82 officers and men of the 34th Tank Company who left Brainerd, 64 accompanied the 194th overseas to the Philippines. The proclamation stated “Three were killed in action and 29 died as POWs. Only 32 survived to return to Brainerd after the end of World War II; one man was wounded and evacuated, two were sent to officer candidate school and 29 survived captivity.”
While fighting the Japanese, Straka said members of his battalion felt isolated and expendable. Tales of Japanese soldiers’ cruelty to prisoners had preceded the actual fighting.
“I was more scared to surrender than to fight,” he said. “Your damn right they (the reports of savagery) were accurate.”
The names of some of the Brainerd area survivors who returned home are familiar to those who have attended or read about Brainerd’s Bataan ceremony. To the post-World War II generations the men of the 194th were familiar — not as 20-something soldiers but as aging veterans who dutifully paid tribute to their fallen comrades each year. Survivors like Russell L. Swearingen, Ralph Hollingsworth, Henry Peck, and Hortense McKay, a member of the Nurse Corps, did their best to see that the horrors of Bataan were not forgotten. Those survivors are gone now.
Straka is the only survivor of that 194th Tank Battalion who lives in the Brainerd area. He said when he’s eating in a restaurant and wearing his Bataan Death March hat people will occasionally buy him breakfast — their way offering tribute to a World War II hero. He plans to be at the 10 a.m. Bataan ceremony at the Brainerd National Guard Armory and hopes many others are as well.
“I hope they come out and support it,” Straka said. “I think it’s only proper. A town the size of Brainerd, with that many losses and that kind of record ...They’ve got to be reminded.”