Bataan Death March hits home for Brainerd families
Of the 64 men from the tank company that left Brainerd who went with the 194th to the Philippines, three were killed in action and 29 died as prisoners of war and 32 survived captivity, including
BRAINERD — Some of those who survived it wanted to forget it. Others could not forget the ultimate sacrifices made in the name of God and country.
Walt Straka was a lifelong Brainerd resident and Minnesota’s last survivor of the infamous Bataan Death March. He lived to be 101 years old but died last year on Independence Day.
Bataan is a province in the Central Luzon region of the Philippines. Although it is half a world away, it will forever be associated as a place of infamy where many American soldiers died. Those who did not survive to return to American soil included 43 young men from Brainerd.
The National Guardsmen originally left the lakes area for Fort Lewis, Washington, for combat training before they were shipped out with other members of the 109th Armor battalion.
Straka’s unit, the 194th Tank Battalion, was ordered to the Philippines in September 1941, just months before the Japanese 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.
Of the brave Brainerd men who fought in the battle was Sgt. Herbert Strobel. His tank, with turret open, was hit by mortar fire.
I should have been dead a thousand times.
“Unable to halt the Japanese assault on Luzon, the army fought a savage withdrawal to the south until finally, there was no longer any place to which to withdraw,” according to the “Centennial Edition of the Brainerd Daily Dispatch (1871-1971).”
Under orders, the American forces surrendered the Bataan Peninsula on the main Philippine island of Luzon to the Japanese on April 9, 1942. Approximately 75,000 Filipino and U.S. troops on Bataan were forced to make a grueling 65-mile march for six days to prison camps.
“If a soldier faltered, there was the crunch of a rifle butt against his skull or the slashing thrust of a bayonet. There was no second chance,” according to the “Centennial Edition of the Brainerd Daily Dispatch (1871-1971).”
Those who could not keep up on the march were killed. Jim McComas and Straka, both from Brainerd, were in a group of five that assisted one another, and all of them lived to see their loved ones again.
“The exact figures are unknown, but it is believed that thousands of troops died because of the brutality of their captors, who starved and beat the marchers, and bayoneted those too weak to walk,” according to History.com.
Many more died from disease, mistreatment and starvation in the POW camps.
"I should have been dead a thousand times," Straka said in a November 2015 interview with the Dispatch. "That 91 days, I was in range of getting killed every minute."
Straka honored the memories of those killed at the annual wreath laying ceremony April 9 in Brainerd, which commemorates the fall of Bataan. This year, a Congressional Gold Medal will be presented Saturday to the family of Brainerd native Julius Knudsen in honor of his service.
Knudsen joined the 194th as a transfer from another unit in California. Knudsen was last seen sometime between April 10-15, 1942, as he and his unit were force-marched north to prison camps. He's been listed as missing ever since.
“When the survivors returned home, Brainerd swallowed its sorrow and showed its pride by staging a special celebration in their honor. There was a parade through the streets and a special banquet and program were held later that day,” according to the Brainerd Dispatch.
Of the 64 men from the tank company that left Brainerd who went with the 194th to the Philippines, three were killed in action and 29 died as prisoners of war, according to an earlier account in the Brainerd Dispatch, and 32 survived captivity — including Straka.
“Today, the citizens of Brainerd are still reminded of the great sacrifice made when the carillon bells play from the courthouse roof. The bells were installed as a memorial to those who died,” according to the Dispatch Centennial Edition.