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History Week event features Brainerd WWII voices

The 194th Tank Battalion memorial group and the Minnesota Military Museum staged an open house Wednesday at the Brainerd National Guard Armory for Brainerd History Week.

Walt Straka, the last survivor of A Company, 194th Tank Battalion, laughs Wednesday at the Brainerd National Guard Armory. The armory open house highlighted military history during Brainerd History Week. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch Video and Gallery
Walt Straka, the last survivor of A Company, 194th Tank Battalion, laughs Wednesday at the Brainerd National Guard Armory. The armory open house highlighted military history during Brainerd History Week. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch Video and Gallery
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The 194th Tank Battalion memorial group and the Minnesota Military Museum staged an open house Wednesday at the Brainerd National Guard Armory for Brainerd History Week.

Walt Straka, Bataan Death March survivor, made an appearance at the open house. Straka served in A Company, 194th Tank Battalion, a unit of Brainerd National Guard soldiers that was forced to surrender during the Japanese invasion of the Philippines during World War II. Straka and his fellow Brainerd soldiers took part in the Bataan Death March, where the Japanese force marched their new prisoners for days. Straka then spent years in prisoner-of-war and work camps in the Philippines and mainland Japan.

Interviewed while visiting with attendees, Straka told a part of his story that isn't often featured in the public sphere: what happened after he got back.

"That was the worst part of the whole thing," he said. "Being with all these guys, watching them die. You see a stranger die, it wouldn't bother you that much. But it bothers you when your buddies die, because you have to go back home and talk to (their relatives)."

Straka said after he was freed from being a POW and went back to America, he drank heavily.

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"I could drink a quart of whiskey a day," he said.

He tried avoiding the relatives of the men, as they would sometimes break down crying in front of him as he told the loved ones of their soldier's suffering in camp. Straka toughed it out through being beaten, starved and infected with a bout of cerebral malaria that put him in a coma for months. However, it was too much for him to take, watching the families react to stories of starvation, barbarity and hopelessness.

With other families, he didn't tell them anything, because the fate of their loved one was too dark to live with: many of the Brainerd men went insane while locked up in the camps, he said.

"They lost it," he said. "That was very easy to do."

To stay sane, Straka said the rosary. He used the repetitive action to clear the horrible visions of what he saw from his head.

Ethel Olson, 90, was also present at the open house. Her brother Elmer Campbell was killed by a sniper as his unit, the 127th Infantry Regiment, 32nd Division, liberated the Philippines near the end of the war.

He insisted on being buried with his comrades, Olson said, so after his death he was interred at the Philippines. Although Olson is too old to visit him, she has seen online images of the place he's buried online, she said.

"He's in a beautiful place," she said.

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Olson also remembered that he didn't marry his girlfriend because of concern he might widow her.

She remembered living with him as children in what was then a rural area near 13th Street in Brainerd. He would take her out to play ball, even though he was a bit older.

"I never heard my mom or dad say anything bad about him," she remembered.

Related Topics: BATAAN DEATH MARCH
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