|Steele (L) Pruitt (R)|
Ben Steele, who became a well-known artist in Montana, was the focus of, Tears in the Darkness: The Story of the Bataan Death March and its Aftermath. His widow and the widow Charles Pruitt visited the Ube Industries coal mine in Yamaguchi Prefecture where their husbands were slave laborers.
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Shirley Emerson Steele, 92, is the widow of Benjamin Charles Steele. They met while he was teaching at the high school in New London, Ohio and were married August 31, 1952. Active in the Billings First United Methodist Church, Mrs. Steele taught English at the local high school before devoting herself to raising their adopted son Sean. She is accompanied by her step-daughter Rosemarie Steele, 70, who recently retired after 32 years as Wheatland Country, Montana elected treasurer. She is active in the local Kiwanis Club and was one of the club’s first five women members. She is Mr. Steele’s older daughter from his first marriage.
Benjamin Charles Steele was born November 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. On September 9, 1940, he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps at Fort Missoula, Montana. After basic training at March Field, California, he received instruction at Kirkland Field, Albuquerque, New Mexico to be an aircraft dispatcher and was assigned to the 7th Materiel Squadron, 19th Bombardment Group. He arrived in the Philippines aboard the USAT Willard A. Holbrook on October 23, 1941.
He was at Clark Field about 40 miles northwest of Metro Manila on December 8th when Imperial Japan began its invasion of the Philippines by bombing this air field and others. After the near total destruction of the American Far East Air Force by December 10th, Steele and 200 members of the 19th Bomb group were withdrawn to the Bataan Peninsula with men from the 27th Bomb Group to form the 2nd Provisional Infantry Regiment. They had had no training, and many did not even know how to load their WWI Springfield rifles. U.S. and Filipino forces on Bataan were surrendered on April 9, 1942. Steele, at Cabcaben Field near the tip of the Bataan Peninsula, began the Bataan Death March at one of its longest points. For six days he and 75,000 other sick, starving, and exhausted men made their way 65 miles north up to the train junction of San Fernando. From there, they were packed into unventilated boxcars for a 24-mile trip to Capas. The next three miles were by foot to Camp O'Donnell, an unfinished training camp for the Philippine Army. Trying to avoid the constant death at the Camp, Steele joined a group of 300 men selected for the Tayabas Road Detail. The work that was so brutal, and the conditions so harsh tha fewer than half the men survived. Near mortally sick from beri beri, dysentery, pneumonia, blood poisoning, and malaria, Steele was sent to Bilibid Prison on August 15th where he stayed for18 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 surrounding him. He did so at great risk, as he could have been shot if his sketches were discovered. When able, he was sent to Cabanatuan to do be an agricultural slave labor.
On July 4, 1944, he was loaded aboard the freighter Sekiho Maru (Canadian Inventor), which came to be known as the Mati Mati Maru (Wait Wait Ship). On September 1, after many breakdowns, a typhoon, and a stop in Formosa, the surviving prisoners, their beards long, hair matted, and skin covered with ulcers and open sores, stumbled down the gangway at Moji, Japan. He was taken to Hiroshima # 6B - Omine (Sanyo) in Yamaguchi Prefecture (Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s home prefecture) 75 miles from Hiroshima. He worked in a dangerous mine as a slave laborer for Ube Kosan's Sanyo Muen Kogyo Sho (Ube Industries' Sanyo Smokeless Coal Works, today’s Ube Industries Ltd., the great grandson of Akira Tawarada the first president (1942) of the consolidated Ube Industries, Yoshimasa Hayashi, is currently Japan’s Education Minister). Steele believed he felt the atomic blast at Hiroshima on August 6, 1945.
In mid-September 1945, he was evacuated to the hospital ship USS Consolation, taken to Okinawa and then 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 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.”
After the war, Steele earned a diploma from the Cleveland Institute of Art in 1950, a B.S. in Education from Kent State University, and a M.A. in Art from Denver University. While teaching high school art in Ohio, he married his second wife, Shirley on August 31, 1952. He retired in 1982 from Eastern Montana State College (today’s Montana State University Billings) as head of the Art Department. He had many one-man shows of his art and his illustrations appear in over 20 books and several documentaries. His WWII POW collection is at the University of Montana and his sketchbooks are at the MacArthur Memorial Museum in Norfolk, Virginia. He is the focus of Tears in the Darkness: The Story of the Bataan Death March and Its Aftermath (2010) and the subject of a 2016 documentary by Jan Thompson, Survival Through Art.
Steele passed away September 25, 2016. Hundreds attended his memorial service in the Montana Pavilion at MetraPark. He is buried in Sunset Memorial Gardens, Billings, Montana. On August 24th, 2017, the Ben Steele Middle School opened in Billings.
Philippines POW#: 本-1546
Japan POW#: 359
Congressman: Greg Gianforte (R-MT), https://gianforte.house.gov/
CHARLES L. PRUITT
Doris Jean Pruitt, 88, is the widow of the late Charles Pruitt. Judith Ann Pruitt, 70, is their oldest of three children. She lives in Boston, Massachusetts and worked in property management in Boston for over 20 years and then for the Closet Factory in design/sales for 15 years. She is an active member of the American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor Memorial Society and serves on their board. Currently, she is the organization’s Treasurer and Convention Chair.
Charles L. Pruitt, one of nine children, was born in Sweetwater, Tennessee on November 6, 1920. He joined the U.S. Navy on September 6, 1940 and received his recruit training in Norfolk, Virginia. His first duty was as a Yeoman aboard the USS Lexington (CV-2). In April 1941, he was transferred to the 16th Naval District at Cavite, Philippines where he was a carpenter’s mate assigned to the Naval Ammunition Depot, Cavite Navy Yard to train as a mine technician. The Navy Yard was bombed and destroyed on December 10, 1941 shortly after Imperial Japan’s invasion. In the immediate aftermath, he helped operate a crane on Sunset Beach, three miles from Cavite, unloading munitions and assisting in the mining of Subic Bay that is about 65 miles northwest of Cavite and Manila.
Like most of the U.S. Navy on the Philippines, he became an infantryman. This makeshift “Navy Infantry” consisted of 150 ground crewmen from Patrol Wing Ten, 80 sailors from the Cavite Naval Ammunition Depot, 130 sailors from USS Canopus (AS-9), 120 sailors from the base facilities at Cavite, Olongapo, and Mariveles, and 120 Marines from an antiaircraft battery. He fought in the Battle of the Points (January 22 to February 18, 1942) at Lapay-Longoskawayan repelling successfully part of a 2,000-strong landing Japanese force.
He was then among 50 men taken to Hiroshima # 6B - Omine (Sanyo) in Yamaguchi Prefecture (Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s home prefecture) 75 miles from Hiroshima. He worked in a dangerous mine as a slave laborer for Ube Kosan's Sanyo Muen Kogyo Sho (Ube Industries' Sanyo Smokeless Coal Work, today’s Ube Industries Ltd., the of great grandson of Akira Tawarada the first president (1942) of the consolidated Ube Industries, Yoshimasa Hayashi, is currently Japan’s Education Minister). Pruitt was one of eight men at the camp who did not wait for liberation forces to arrive at his camp. They somehow made their way down to the south end of the island of Kyushu and met up with American forces. For unknown reasons, he was registered as “liberated at Fukuoka #9 Miyata” a mine in central Kyushu. He proceeded to hitch-hike on air transports from Japan all the way to San Francisco. He briefly stayed at Oak Knoll Naval Hospital took another military transport to Olathe, Kansas where he finished his trip back home to Tennessee via a Trailways bus to Memphis. He spent the next six months at the Naval Hospital in Millington, Tennessee.
After his return to Sweetwater, Tennessee, he married his sister’s friend, Jean DeButy, on October 28, 1946. Their first child, Judith Ann, was born August 5, 1947. He remained in the Navy for 20 years, and retired in 1960 as a Chief Warrant Officer. Pruitt, a talented woodworker, taught cabinet-making at Tennessee schools until 1981. In retirement, he served as Commander of the Smokey Mountain Chapter of American Ex-POW organization (AXPOW). He was also the National Commander of the American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor for 1994-1995. Mr. Pruitt passed away December 4, 1998 and is buried at the Tennessee State Veterans Cemetery.
Philippines POW#: 1-12247
Japan POW#: 469
Congressman: Chuck Fleischmann (R-TN 3rd)
BURKHART, THOMAS F.
Caroline Burkhart, 70, is the daughter of the late Thomas F. Burkhart. She grew up as an Army “brat” throughout the United States and now lives in Baltimore, Maryland, where she pursued a career in real estate. She is an experienced researcher of the American POW experience with Imperial Japan and a former vice president of the American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor Memorial Society.
Thomas F. Burkhart was born May 6, 1914 in Altoona, Pennsylvania. He joined the U.S. Army Air Corps in July 1937 and was assigned as a medical clerk to Hamilton Field, California. In June 1941, he was discharged from the Army Air Corps and commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant in the U.S. Army Reserve. He was immediately sent to the Philippines aboard the SS President Pierce. He arrived June 24th and was assigned to Fort McKinley outside Manila, the headquarters for the U.S. Army Forces in the Far East (USAFFE) Philippines Department. He became an officer with the Headquarters Company of the 45th Infantry, Philippine Scouts, an elite U.S. Army unit composed of American officers and Filipino enlisted men. After Imperial Japan’s December 8, 1941 invasion of the Philippines and USAFFE’s December 23rd activation of War Plan Orange-3 (WPO-3), his battalion helped defend the withdrawal of American forces on Luzon to the Bataan Peninsula. Barely a month after being promoted to 1st Lieutenant, on January 24, 1942, he earned a Silver Star for “Gallantry in Action” at the Battle of Abucay Hacienda (January 15-25, 1942) helping maintain the first battle position on Bataan.
Sick with malaria, Burkhart was in the open-air General Hospital #1 near the tip of Bataan when Major General Edward King surrendered the Bataan Peninsula to Japanese forces on April 9, 1942. At the end of the month, the patients were taken by truck up to San Fernando and there made to stand in packed boxcars for the 24-mile trip to Capas, Tarlac. As he told his family, “hell would be a refrigerator” compared with being in these poorly ventilated, rolling prisons that were like ovens under the sweltering tropical sun. As those who endured the Bataan Death March, he was forced to march the last three miles to Camp O’Donnell, a makeshift POW camp from an unfinished Philippine Army training camp. In early June, the Japanese fearing the deaths of all the prisoners from the horrific conditions of the Camp began to release their Filipino POWs and transfer the others to a new facility at Cabanatuan. It is estimated that 1,550 Americans and 22,000 Filipinos died at Camp O’Donnell, the overwhelming majority with the first eight weeks.
On November 6 1942, he was among 1,500 prisoners packed into the coal bunker of the unmarked “Hell ship” Nagato Maru. It took three tortuous weeks for the ship to make its way from the tropics to the cold of Northeast Asia. The ship stopped at Takeo, Formosa before arriving at the port of Moji on Kyushu, Japan. Burkhart nearly blind from malnutrition, was first taken to Osaka POW Camp #4-B Tanagawa. This camp provided POW slave labor for the Toshima Group (today’s Tobishima Corporation) to build a breakwater and submarine base. The camp was notable for having one of the highest death rates among the mainland POW camps. He was soon (January 15 1943), moved to the Hiroshima #1-B Zentsuji POW Camp on the island of Shikoku. Although Zentsuji, is often referred to as a “propaganda show camp,” conditions were harsh and the men were punished for any perceived offense often on a whim of the guard in charge. The enlisted men at the camp were slave stevedores for Nippon Express Co. (Nippon Tsuun) at Sakaide Rail Yards and the Port of Takamatsu. As an officer, Burkhart worked in the camp garden and tried to raise rabbits. On June 23, 1945, he and 334 officers were transferred to POW Camp 11-B Rokuroshi deep in the Japanese Alps near the industrial town of Fukui (destroyed by air raids July 1945). They were to do subsistence farming, even though they had arrived in the camp late in the growing season and no land had been cleared for cultivation. Because Rokuroshi had not been identified by the Japanese government as a POW camp, it was one of the last to be found (September 8, 1945). He was quickly evacuated to Manila on USS Tryon and then sent to San Francisco on the USS Storm King.
Burkhart remained in the Army and made a career with the Quartermaster Corps, retiring in 1957 as a Lt. Colonel in U.S. Army Reserve. Throughout his life he was plagued by health problems most likely caused by the illnesses and hardships of being a POW. For a number of years after retirement, he worked as a government contractor in the food service industry. In 1972, at 57, he passed away and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
Philippines POW#: 1-03739
Japan POW#: NA
Congressman: John P. Sarbanes (D-MD 3rd)
JOHN J. MCCORTS
Mary Jane McCorts Blaine, 62, is the daughter of the late John J. McCorts. She is a life-long resident of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and works for the Pennsylvania State Employee Credit Union (PSECU). For the past 20 years, Ms. Blaine has been an active member of the American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor Memorial Society.
John J. McCorts was born May 19, 1921 in Stillions, Arkansas, the older of two boys, and named for his maternal grandfather. After his parents’ divorce, his family moved to his maternal grandmother’s farm near El Dorado, Arkansas. At some point they moved to Abilene, Texas where he graduated from high school and enlisted in the U.S. Army one year later in 1940. He was trained to be a radio operator with the Signal Corps. Likely sent to Philippines sometime between June and October 1941, his first assignment was with the 228th Signal Operations Company that was constituted on September 2, 1941. It is unclear when in January 1942 or how he moved from Ft. McKinley to Corregidor Island in Manila Bay to work on signals intelligence in the Malinta Tunnel. On May 6, 1942, when Corregidor was surrendered by Major General Jonathan Wainwright, he was taken prisoner while repairing wire near the Tunnel. His family did not know if he was dead or alive until Christmas 1942 and only then through a newspaper article in the Boulder City, Nevada newspaper.
Like most of the 12,000 men on Corregidor, he was moved to the rocky beach at the 92nd Garage, After nearly three weeks (May 24th) in the tropical sun with little food, water or sanitation, they were put in small boats to Manila. The men were then made to wade ashore before being paraded six miles down Dewey Boulevard on a “Victory March” now called the “March of Shame” before the Filipino and foreign residents to the old Spanish-built prison of Bilibid. Many of the POWs were chained together with collar shackles and suffered the Japanese soldiers urinating on them. The following day they were moved by train and foot to the squalid Cabanatuan POW Camp.
McCorts was among the 300 POWs and 2,000 Imperial Japanese Army troops boarded on Lima Maru September 20, 1942 to Takao, Formosa. The men were taken to Taiwan POW Camp #2 – Taichu for two months. On November 15, 1942, he was sent to the Port of Moji in Japan aboard the “Hell ship” Dainichi Maru. From there, he was taken north to the Mitsubishi-owned shipyard and POW camp Tokyo #1-D Yokohama at Yokohama. He was a riveter inside ships under construction. The noise and constant beatings he received to his head caused permanent damage to his hearing.
At some point, he was transferred north to the Sendai #8B Kosaka POW Camp to be a slave laborer at a copper mine and smelter owned by Fujita-gumi Construction Company (today’s Dowa Holdings Co., Ltd.). There is now a museum in Kosaka reviewing the history of the local mine, which was one of Japan’s most productive as well as the origin of Dowa Holdings’ metal and mining business. The Kosaka Mine Office Museum and mine are pictured on Dowa’s website. There is no mention at the museum of the Allied POWs who slaved there.
He was liberated on September 11, 1945 and returned to the United States on October 15, 1945. He spent nearly a year at Letterman General Hospital in San Francisco, California and Birmingham General Hospital in Van Nuys, California. Bewildered by freedom and the job environment, he rejoined the Army’s Signal Corps. Over the years, he traveled most of the world as part of his service and sometimes on his own, including: Russia, Greece, Italy, Egypt, Korea, France, Germany, Singapore, and Viet Nam.
His Russia posting in the late 1940s, landed him in the midst of a 1953 investigation by Senator Joe McCarthy (R-WI) into possible espionage and un-American activities at the U.S. Army Signal Corps facility at Fort Monmouth in New Jersey. He was discharged and denied a promotion. McCarthy’s charges soon proved scurrilous and McCorts was reinstated. The experience, however, left him angry and bitter and prompted him to turn down a promotion to Master Sergeant. He remained on active duty until 1963 and retired from the Reserves in 1970. He used his GI benefits to pursue his college education at Temple University, where in 1972 he received a B.A. in Social Administration.
His first post-service job was as an electronic communications specialist with the Pennsylvania Department of Civil Defense. After graduation from Temple, he changed career paths and worked in the Pennsylvania State Department of Health and Welfare where he started as a case worker, then a field auditor, and retired as policy director.
In 1992, McCorts developed a rare cancer often found in people who had long-term, low-level exposure to copper cyanide as found in the Dowa Holdings’ mine. Although his cancer was in remission, he suffered from a series of strokes and other medical issues and passed away on February 10, 2001. He is buried in the Indiantown Gap National Cemetery, Annville, Pennsylvania.
Japan POW#: 796
Congressman: Lou Barletta (R- PA 11th)