It was poetic, in a sense, that Walt Straka’s last day on Earth was on that most patriotic of American of holidays — the Fourth of July.
Straka, who died at the age of 101 Sunday, July 4, was Minnesota’s last Bataan Death March survivor.
Though he probably wouldn’t have used the term to describe himself, Straka, who called Brainerd his home for his entire life, was a hero. Though he will be missed, he will certainly not be forgotten for a life defined by more than just the horrors of war.
And what a life he led.
The opening paragraphs of Tuesday’s Brainerd Dispatch e-edition story on Straka’s life and passing spelled it out succinctly: An American war hero is born in 1919, comes of age during the Great Depression, survives pitched battles and years as a prisoner of war, then returns home to marry his sweetheart, raise seven children and chase the American dream. Then, nearly 80 years after his ordeal, at the golden age of 101, he died on the Fourth of July. If a Hollywood screenwriter pitched this, they’d be laughed out of the room, yet this is no less than the life of Walt Straka.
“My life, from Day One, if I could put it all down on paper I could write one hell of a book,” Straka said on his 100th birthday. “I could write a book that you couldn’t put down and quit reading it.”
There are many superlatives that can be used to describe Straka, but the most poignant is that he was a survivor.
As a member of Company A of 194th Tank Battalion he was sent to reinforce troops in the Philippines in September of 1941, three months before the United States entered World War II. The company fought on until ordered to surrender with the Fall of Bataan on April 9, 1942. Straka and his comrades in the 194th were among the approximately 75,000 American and Filipino troops who walked more than 60 miles to Japanese prison camps in what became known as the Bataan Death March.
Of the 64 Brainerd men from the tank company that went with the 194th to the Philippines, three were killed in action and 29 died as prisoners of war. Thirty-two survived captivity.
The Bataan Death March is woven into the fabric of Brainerd’s history. We memorialize it every year and honor those who served — both those who didn’t make it home and those who did. Straka has been and will continue to be celebrated for the trials he overcame, the horrors he survived and the life he lived.
And that’s how it should be. Straka and all the men of the 194th Tank Battalion deserve no less.