Remembering a friend
It’s been 72 years, but Bataan Death March survivor Walt Straka of Brainerd couldn’t help but think of World War II buddies who didn’t make it back home.
Bryon Veillette was one of the fallen soldiers Straka, 95, thought of Wednesday when U.S. Army National Guard soldiers and civilians marked the anniversary of the fall of Bataan with a wreath-laying cemetery at the Brainerd Armory.
“He was my best friend,” Straka recalled.
That Japanese victory in the early months of World War II, after four months of fighting by ill-equipped U.S. and Philippine soldiers, marked the beginning of the long, cruel death march from the Philippine peninsula of Bataan to Japanese prison camps. Of the 64 soldiers from Brainerd’s A Co., 194th Tank Battalion, 32 were killed in fighting, during the march or in Japanese prison camps. Straka was among the 32 who made it home.
Looking back, Straka said he wouldn’t have begun the march, which began April 10, 1942, if he had known the horrors that were ahead of him. Not for fame. Not for money. Not even if Fort Knox was at the end of it, he said.
“It was a nightmare,” Straka said.
Straka returned to the United States and was able to work and raise a family, even though he was plagued with health problems that were related to his brutal imprisonment. His best friend, Veillette, died in a Japanese prison camp. It was a death Straka couldn’t really make sense of, the former POW said. Veillette was a star athlete, who had athletic scholarship offers from colleges.
“I played pool,” Straka said of his own athletic conditioning.
Mostly, Straka remembered Veillette as a young Brainerd area man with his life ahead of him; one who was excited to receive a ring from his girlfriend in the mail.
“He was probably one of the nicest guys you ever met,” Straka recalled. “He was a great guy.”
The outdoor ceremony at the Bataan Memorial was short and to the point, befitting a morning in which strong, cool winds made the U.S. flags snap to attention.
Capt. Rob Grutsch delivered a brief historical summary of the sacrifices made by the 194th Tank Battalion members. Chaplain Susan Edwards of American Legion Post 255 delivered an invocation and benediction. A rifle salute was presented by American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars color guards. “Taps” was played at the conclusion of the ceremony.
Grutsch mentioned the death on last Veterans Day of Ken Porwoll, another member of Brainerd’s original 34th Tank Co. Straka is now believed to be the sole living member of that tank company.
Among those attending Wednesday’s Bataan ceremony were students from the Pillager Area Charter School. Ninth-grader Ricky Williams and junior Steven Jordan each said their great-grandfathers served in the armed forces during World War II. Abby Johnson, an 11th-grader, thought the ceremony helped bring history alive.
“It is very cool they represented their fallen comrades,” Williams said.
Mark Wolhart, director of the charter school, said students earlier saw a play entitled “The Things They Carried” about soldiers who fought in Vietnam.
“We just think you’ve got to remember that stuff,” he said.
Another observer of the ceremony was Ralph Yeager, who lives north of Merrifield. He is a World War II veteran who parachuted in Sicily and Normandy with the 82nd Airborne in the U.S. Army. When Yeager came home he built and ran Fishin’ Mission Resort on Lower Mission Lake for many years.
People interested in learning about or preserving the history of the 194th Tank Battalion are encouraged to join and become honorary members of the 194th Tank Regiment. More information on the organization, which also supports the current battalion, may be obtained by calling Dick Hayes at 829-4900 or Charley Extrand at 829-5338.