It's the roll call of names that got to Walt Straka.
Undoubtedly for most filling the Bataan Memorial Hall Saturday, Sept. 8, the names stand alone as words on a printed page. Perhaps familiar when called out during the ceremony, but names without context of what made them laugh or who they wanted to be. The names recalled those who died at Bataan—in battle, during the more than 60 tortuous miles of the forced Death March or as prisoners of war—and the 32 men who survived to return to Brainerd when World War II ended. For Straka, they were boys he knew from high school, friends and neighbors. Names attached to faces and memories.
"I wake up in the morning—I can't believe I'm still here," Straka said after the ceremony. "When they read those names off and they are all gone. That's the thing that really got me."
Straka, 98, is the sole survivor from the Brainerd Guardsman. The 194th Tank Battalion men were ordered to the Philippines in September of 1941, just months before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Stationed near Clark Field on the island of Luzon, they represented the first tank unit in the Far East before World War II. Isolated, without supplies, they fought on until ordered to surrender with the fall of Bataan on April 9, 1942.
Nearly 10,000 troops died on the march. Sixty-four men from the tank company that left Brainerd went with the 194th to the Philippines, three were killed in action and 29 died as POWs. Twenty-nine survived captivity.
Straka received a standing ovation when he was recognized along with the families of those who served with him—like Kenneth Porwoll, Henry Peck, Julius Knudsen, Russell Swearingen, Walter Samuelson.
"Remember Bataan—Never Forget are powerful words," Lt. Col. Tadd Vanyo, commander of the 1-194th Armor Combined Arms Battalion, told those gathered for the 21st annual Bataan Memorial March. "But it's the deeds we do that matter."
Deeds such as coming out to remember the heroism of those young soldiers at the very outbreak of World War II for America. Vanyo said the soldiers who worked to hold Bataan fought to the bitter end and in doing so changed history by making the Japanese change their plans.
"We can make a difference with our deeds, by being here today that's part of it. That's how we remember Bataan. Never forget has meaning.
Guest speaker Jim Knudsen remembered his uncle Julius Knudsen who remains missing in action, last seen along the Bataan Death March. They don't know if he died or was killed as so many were or if he was taken off the march for forced labor. The family provided DNA in hopes that someday Julius Knudsen's remains will be found, identified and returned home.
This year marks the 76th anniversary of Bataan.
Straka was a prisoner of war for 43 months. He said his Catholic faith helped him. He used his fingers to keep track as he'd pray the rosary.
"If you couldn't pray on that march you were through," he said.
When he got home, the families of the men who were lost wanted to find out what happened, including the father of his best friend, Byron Veillette, who was killed in action. Straka said he couldn't tell them those terrible details.
"It was really a hard time for a few years," he said.
Straka said he thinks often of Veillette, a good athlete and the family's only son.
"A good kid," Straka said of Veillette. "You couldn't meet a nicer guy."
Straka credits his late wife Cleta as the reason he was able to keep going after the war. The couple raised seven children. Straka still marvels at his health. When he cracked a hip a decade a go, he said the doctor told him he had tough bones.
"I'm just happy I'm here," he said. "I just thank God I'm still here."
With visible emotion, Straka noted the people who come up to him with thanks or an offer to buy a meal or pay for his store purchase. With everything going on in the world, Straka said "there are a lot of good people on this Earth."
Before the war, Straka said his dream was to be a lawyer. He remembered a friend taking him up to the courthouse. The impression that trip left on him was immediate. He said he would go over to the courthouse and sit and watch cases. He knew he could do that work.
"I just loved that," he said. But when he came back from the war, he said his nerves were shot.
"I couldn't do anything," he said. Studying to be a lawyer was impossible. Eventually, he found he worked best when he could work for himself selling cars.
The Brainerd he came back to after the war hadn't changed a lot. It was more prosperous, but much the same. He's still glad to call it home.
"I wouldn't want to live any place else—except in the winter—I've been all over and I'd rather live here."
Baxter Mayor Darrel Olson and Rep. Josh Heintzeman, R-Nisswa, were among dignitaries on the stage for the memorial ceremony before the march. Soldiers and civilians filled the armory's Bataan Memorial Hall. A number of soldiers carried full packs for the march. The 21st annual event, which honors the sacrifices of the men who suffered on the Bataan Death March, includes a half-marathon, a full marathon walk/run and a half-marathon ruck march, with military pack.
For more photos go to https://bit.ly/2wVPq4z.