Walt Straka at 100: A look at Brainerd’s last Bataan Death March survivor
Now turning 100 years old, the last Brainerd survivor of the Bataan Death March said he's had a life that would fill hundreds of pages and grip the reader so strongly they couldn't put it down.
A once unthinkable centennial looms large on Walt Straka’s calendar.
It’s led to a host of reflections for the former prisoner of war, who didn’t believe he had a snowball’s chance of surviving Bataan, let alone 10 years after the war.
Let alone to the age of 100.
But, nevertheless, it’s real and it’s here. On Thursday, Oct. 24, Walt Straka is 100 years old, the last Minnesotan survivor of the 60-mile journey of torture and death, followed by 43 months of incomprehensible captivity in sub-human conditions. He also stands among the few remaining members of a shrinking club: the veterans of World War II and all their living, breathing connections to a century of seismic changes and events.
“Oh God, I never dreamt I’d ever get that old,” Walt said. “I never thought I’d get there. It’s almost unbelievable. It’s almost unbelievable. I’m happy. I’m just thankful to be alive.
“The only thing that bugs me these days are those darn nightmares, but I just have to get up and fight them off,” he added. “That’s just life, I suppose.”
Former state Sen. Don Samuelson, a friend of Walt’s whose own father took part in the death march and later died in Japanese captivity, said he marvels at Walt’s extraordinary resilience.
“It’s incredible. It’s absolutely amazing that anyone could survive that long after what happened. As I understand it, there’s only five left,” Samuelson said. “To be still alive and be so alert, it’s a blessed thing.”
The fact he’s still here among the living is a testament to Walt’s incredible drive to survive and thrive, Walt’s son Greg Straka said.
“My brother Paul once said to me, ‘Walt’s a war hero,’” Greg said. “I said ‘No, he isn’t. Walt’s not a war hero, he’s a survivor.’”
Born Oct. 24, 1919, Walter Straka was 10 years old when Black Tuesday hit and the Great Depression descended on the world. Much like the rest of America, the Strakas of Brainerd struggled to put food on the table and heat their home — though, Walt noted his was a humble, if stable childhood. A far cry from the destitution suffered by millions of others.
He said he had long envisioned himself as a lawyer and intended to pursue that as a career, but his fateful decision to enlist for a short stint in the U.S. National Guard was to irrevocably transform Walt’s life and his own conception of himself.
In 1941, Straka’s unit, the 194th Tank Battalion, was ordered to the Philippines in September, 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 and without supplies, they fought on until ordered to surrender with the fall of Bataan on April 9, 1942.
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 POWs.The letters of the English alphabet are simply inadequate to convey the horrors of toture, wanton killings, slave labor and treatment as sub-human cargo — which, for many, characterized the final days of their lives.Thirty-two survived captivity.
"I should have been dead a thousand times," Straka said in November 2015. "That 91 days, I was in range of getting killed every minute."
And that isn’t hyperbole — not from a man who survived firefights isolated and trapped in a tank; who was all but paralyzed by a rifle butt to the spine during the death march; who felt bullets splitting the air between his legs; who survived bouts with malaria and dysentery; who withered away to 89 pounds after unrelenting starvation; who ate rotting fish in the bowels of a notorious Japanese “hell ship”; and who found himself carrying corpses in the shadow of Nagasaki three days after the second atomic bomb destroyed the city.
But to reach 100 years old? For years, that was unfathomable — even to a man who escaped death a thousand times, time itself is a formidable enemy.
“When I got back, I had so many things wrong with me I just got on my knees and prayed to God, I said, ‘Please give me 10 years,’” Straka said. “Then I went to work and fought it off, raised a family of seven. It was a chore, believe me, but I did it. I worked my butt off, but it kept me alive. It kept me going.”
Physical health issues lingered for Straka years after the end of the war, but the dark hells of the mind have continued to haunt him to the present day. He didn’t dwell on what happened. He settled down. He married his wife Cleta, who shared with him 64 years and seven children — of which, he noted, all were put through college without them paying a nickel. He worked hard until he retired in 1974. He remained active, so uncommonly spry he could be spotted shoveling his own sidewalk well into his 90s.
But Walt Straka wasn’t the Walt Straka that left Brainerd in 1941. He said he couldn’t find the frame of mind to pursue a career in law as he had hoped, so he settled as a used car salesman with a construction outfit on the side. But, then, sometimes the weight of his experiences in Luzon were debilitating, he said, rendering him unable to work altogether.
This was present, faintly, in the fabric of everyday life, Greg, 69, said.
Bataan and its horrors were something that always hung in the background, if hidden and out of sight, Greg said. Growing up, he said he often wondered why his father and mother didn’t sleep in the same bed, but he quickly realized his father’s nightmares made it an impossible arrangement.
At home, Greg — Walt’s second child and oldest son, who shares the same birthday — described his father as a family-oriented if firm-handed provider, with a disciplinarian streak and a well-developed propensity to call it like he saw it.
“You didn’t screw around,” Greg said. “We learned when dad came home that you had to behave, but it was a good childhood. He set us on the straight and narrow. We never wanted for anything. He is very opinionated and he’s got reasons for his opinion. He doesn’t mince words.”
And thus, even at 100, Walt has retained a certain bluntness and an acerbic edge that time has done little to soften.
While commiserating with the host of friends, well-wishers and admirers who inevitably surround him after each Bataan Memorial March, Straka once described an opportunity he’s had in recent years to take a goodwill tour to Japan, all expenses paid in the range of $60,000.
In his words, Straka — who’s noted he can forgive, but not forget what the Japanese did to him and his friends — told them to shove the proposal where the sun don’t shine.
Still, Straka’s candor wasn’t only reserved for the horrors of war and those responsible. He could be equally passionate about defending the livelihoods and aspirations of younger generations against those who wrote them off as shallow or unpatriotic.
“I think most of the young people are darn good people,” he said. “I really feel like that. I think they should get an education for one thing, stay in school, and get a work ethic, but I’ve got a lot of faith in the young people. I think they’re going to be alright.”
In interviews, Walt has revisited his trauma in unflinching and even grimly humorous terms, though this wasn’t always the case, Greg said.
Physical ailments and nightmares aside, there was always the possibility of alcoholism, or drug use, or despair — pitfalls that claimed their fair share of Bataan survivors and other World War II veterans — yet Walt often internalized the memories and “fought them off” as he puts it, sticking his nose to the grindstone and working hard through the decades.
When Greg narrowly avoided getting drafted into the military during Vietnam, the usually stoic and reserved Walt reportedly jumped up and down with unrestrained happiness.
In recent years, Walt has mellowed out some, Greg said, but he’s also been able to discuss his experiences openly.
“He’s relaxed. It’s good to see him talk about these things,” Greg said. “He’s not afraid to talk about it anymore.”
And so, with that unfathomable centennial looming on the calendar, Walt Straka remains, as much an indelible part of the city of Brainerd as the iconic water tower gracing its seal — the both of them, 100 years old.
UPDATE: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated Don Samuelson's father died during the Bataan Death March. He was involved in the death march, but ultimately succumbed to disease while in Japanese captivity later.