Ben Steele - a Bataan Death March survivor whose art helped him maintain his sanity as a prisoner of war of Japan during WWII as well helped him forgive his captors - died in Montana on Sunday, September 25, 2015. He was 98. He had been in hospice care for more than a year.
It seemed like the entire state came out for his memorial service on October 4th at the Montana Pavilion at MetraPark. The 2,000 seat venue was full and the 90-minute service broadcast live. Montana's Governor Steve Bullock ordered flags across the state a half-staff for the day and issued a proclamation:
I hereby order all flags flown in the State of Montana to be flown at half-staff on Tuesday, October 4th, 2016, in memory of the life of Benjamin Charles Steele, WWII Veteran, Bataan Death March survivor, devoted educator, and artist.
Ben Steele was a Montanan of immeasurable character who portrayed the courage of his generation with a sketchbook and a joyful laugh. He taught all of us never to give up on the importance of inspiring future generations after overcoming incredible adversity.Steele was born on Nov. 17, 1917, in the small Montana town of Roundup and grew up riding horses, roping cattle and occasionally delivering supplies to the well-known western artist Will James. “His parents told him not to hang out much with Will James because he was a drinker, but Dad never said a bad word about him,” his daughter Julie Jorgenson told The Billings Gazette.
By August, Ben became so ill from beri beri, dysentery, pneumonia, blood poisoning, and malaria that he could no longer work. He was sent to Bilibid Prison for 18 months. Although expected to die, he clung to life and kept his sanity by covertly sketching Montana scenes--cowboys, horses and barns--and the human degradation and cruelty POWs were subjected to. He did so at great risk. Steele acknowledged he could have been shot if his sketches were discovered.
In mid-September 1945, he was evaluated to the hospital ship USS Consolation, taken to Okinawa and then was flown to San Francisco by the 19th Bombardment Group C54 and assigned to Fort George Wright Hospital in Spokane, Washington, where he remained until he was discharged on July 10, 1946. Steele painted scenes from his capture as he went through his long recovery, including trying to regain the 80 pounds he lost. “I had lots of problems to work through,” he said, “and the doctors thought the art was a good idea.”
In 1950, Ben graduated from the Cleveland Institute of Art. He earned a Bachelor of Science in Education degree from Kent State University two years later and a Master of the Arts degree from Denver University in 1955. He also pursued further graduate study at the University of Oregon, Illinois State University, and Montana State University. He served as post crafts director for the Department of Army at Fort Riley, Kansas in 1953 and as staff crafts director for the 3rd U.S. Army in 1956. In September 1959, he started teaching in the art department of Eastern Montana College, today's University of Montana, Billings, acting as director and eventually as head of the art department until June 1982. He retired as Professor of Art Emeritus.
He said he learned to forgive his Japanese captors because of his relationship with Harry Koyama, an art student of Japanese heritage. “He’s been a part of my life since I met him in college in the 1960s,” Koyama, a western artist with a gallery in Billings, said about Steele. “That’s even more of a humbling experience to know that I had not just an effect, but a positive effect on his life.”
|click to order|
A documentary of Steele’s life, Survival Through Art, narrated by Alec Baldwin and filmed by ADBC-MS President Jan Thompson has just been completed. In March 2016, ground was broken for Ben Steele Middle School in Billings.