Sunday, November 06, 2016

Ben Steele In Memoriam

ADBC-MS President Jan Thompson 
gives an eulogy at the Steele memorial

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.

In October 1941, US Army Air Corps Private Steele arrived at Clark Field in the Philippines to join the air crews maintaining the war planes arriving from America. On December 8th, Japan began its invasion of the Philippines by bombing Clark and other US air bases. After the near total destruction of the American air force on the Philippine Islands, Steele and other airmen were evaluated on December 24th and sent to fight with the US Army Infantry on the Bataan Peninsula. He and all the troops on Bataan were surrendered on April 9, 1942.

Along with thousands of Filipino and American soldiers, he endured the 65-mile Bataan Death March under a scorching tropical sun up the Bataan peninsula to a make-shift POW camp at Camp O'Donnell in Capas. Along the way, the men were robbed, bayoneted, starved, beaten and killed. All suffered from four months of desperate fighting from malnutrition, exhaustion, dysentery, and malaria. Over 10,000 Filipinos and 600 Americans died on the March.

Ben Steele
The death rate escalated at the POW camp with about 20,000 Filipinos and 1,500 Americans dying there because of disease, starvation, neglect, and brutality. In June, to get out of the camp, Steele joined the Tayabas Road detail. This proved even more difficult than the March, especially since none of the soldiers knew when it would be over. For most, it would end in death. Out of the original 325 soldiers, Ben was one of only 50 who survived the work camp.

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.

Canadian Inventor
On July 4, 1944,  he was put on board the freighter Canadian Inventor, which the prisoners called Mati Mati Maru. The POWs endured 62 days en route to Japan. The ship arrived at Moji, Japan on September 1. Most ships bringing POWs to Japan docked at Moji. He was sent the next day to be a slave laborer at a coal mine owned by Sanyo Muen Kogyosho, today's Ube Industries.

The POW camp linked to the mine was Hiroshima #6-B (Omine Machi). It was so close Hiroshima, that he heard the explosion of the atomic bomb dropped on that city on August 6, 1945. In 1996, to the Company's credit, they allowed a memorial to built near the mine the POWs who toiled there.

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
Steele’s powerful images of his time in captivity are housed at the Montana Museum of Art and Culture at the University of Montana in Missoula. While many people knew Steele’s war stories and what he endured as a prison of war, “it’s his personality, his warm caring personality that made people love him,” his daughter says. “His students would come up to me and say, ‘Ben and I have a special bond.’ But he made everyone feel special.” Steele’s survival was chronicled in the 2009 New York Times best-seller Tears in the Darkness: The Story of the Bataan Death March and Its Aftermath by Michael and Elizabeth Norman.

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. 

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