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(© 2017 Journal GlobaLinks)


CHICAGO (JGL) – The unpreparedness of the United States Army Forces of the Far East (USAFFE) at the outbreak of World War II says it all in the caption of the late Ben Steele’s

sketch, “Fighting on Bataan,” saying, “Ben Steele was with the U.S. Army Air Corps in the Philippines, but once all planes were destroyed he became an infantryman.”
To appreciate where Steele's caption was coming from, shortly after the Falls of Bataan and Corregidor, there was a War Department Circular 269 that says, the only ones, who can qualify for Combat Infantry Badge (CIB) “are infantry men or officers (on the ground, not on the air) if they were engaged in “a) exemplary conduct in action against the enemy, or b) by satisfactory performance of duty in action against the enemy in a major operation as determined and announced by the theater commander.” The place of combat should be located in Luzon and Corregidor and the period of the operation should start (retroactive) on or after Dec. 7, 1941.

The CIB and the Bronze Star Medal (BSM) as conversion award was issued to boost and enhance the morale of the members of USAFFE by including a modest $10 monthly stipend.

The CIB and the BSM were similar to the promise of Philippine Commonwealth President Osmena and General Douglas MacArthur to equalize the salary of Filipino soldiers with their American counterparts only to be denied by the U.S. Congress when it realized that such promise would cost the U.S. a couple of billions of dollars by passing the Rescission Acts of 1946.

BEN STEELE at the age of 26. (Photo from http://www.artmontana.com/article/steele/)

But for Steele whose Collection and showing of the new documentary film, Survival Through Art, unveiled on April 9 to commemorate the 75th anniversary of Bataan Death March, his ordeal alone should more than deserve him the CIB and the BSM even if he were an airman.


Steele was captured just months after arriving in the Philippines, tortured, starved, and pierced with a bayonet during the ensuing 41 months.

He survived by trying to recall his memories in Montana and years of physical labor.

According to CBS News, Steele was “hospitalized in late 1942 from a near-lethal combination of beriberi, dysentery, jaundice, and malaria. Ben began sketching on the concrete hospital floor with a piece of charcoal from the nearby stove. His first drawings of horses, cowboy hats, and corrals helped restore his strength and brought his unknown art talents to the attention of others in the compound.”


PHILIPPINE EMBASSY’s Economic Minister Jose Victor Chan-Gonzaga from left joins American Defenders of Bataan & Corregidor Memorial Society President, Jan Thompson; Ben Steele’s widow, Shirley Steele; and MacArthur Memorial Director Mr. Christopher Kolakowski at the MacArthur Memorial in Norfolk, Virginia on April 9, 2017. (Photo by Philippine Embassy)

On smuggled paper and at the urging of other prisoners, Ben began drawing scenes from the death march and camp life—images that would find their way in the years to come into a collection that has toured the nation and now resides permanently at University of Montana in Missoula. 

Born on Nov. 17, 1917, in Roundup, Montana, Steele died Sept. 25, 2016 in Billings, Montana at the age of 98.


In unveiling Steele’s collection and the showing of documentary film Survivial Through Art, the MacArthur Memorial in Norfolk, Virginia brought together a representative from the Philippine Embassy in Washington, DC; Shirley Steele, Ben Steele’s widow; Jan Thompson, President of the American Defenders of Bataan & Corregidor Memorial Society; officials of the MacArthur Memorial, veterans, as well as the local community, including Filipino Americans.

Steele was one of tens of thousands of Filipino and American troops forced to go on the Bataan Death March. After surviving the march, he spent time in several labor camps for Prisoners of War (POW), including the infamous Tayabas Road Detail.

KTVQ reports tough economic times forced Steele to join the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1940, and by 1941 he was a prisoner of the Japanese. After being captured by the Japanese and surviving the 66-mile “Death March” in the Philippines, Steele was packed away on an infamous Japanese “Hell Ship,” which he also barely survived, before ending up in a forced labor camp in Japan. 

The Ben Steele Collection consists of sketchbooks containing graphic, compelling and gripping drawings of the Bataan Death March and of POW labor camps. The collection has been donated to the MacArthur Memorial where they will be preserved in perpetuity.

The documentary Survival Through Art was produced by Jan Thompson, and narrated by actor Alec Baldwin. It tells the story of Ben Steele’s remarkable life as a soldier, Bataan Death March survivor, husband to Shirley, and as a teacher, including to a Japanese-American who helped him transcend the hatred he initially had for the Japanese people.

In the formal program, Minister Jose Victor V. Chan-Gonzaga, representing the Philippine Embassy, delivered the welcome remarks. He noted that General MacArthur in whose honor the memorial was established and the Bataan Death March that Ben Steele so evocatively illustrates are milestones in a continuum of events in the 20th century that changed the history of our nations and the lives of the families touched by the war. He also emphasized that, more importantly, our common World War II experiences had become the foundation upon which were built over the years, the deep friendship and vital partnership between the Philippines and the United States, and their peoples.

“May I suggest that, as we reflect on the 75th anniversary of the Bataan Death March, on this glorious spring day, we affirm, we celebrate, how the stories of our two great nations have been brought together by the shared sacrifices of our soldiers in war time; and the shared commitment to democracy of our peoples in peace. We celebrate how, with our hard fought freedoms, we embrace a mutual commitment to self-determination, human rights, and respect for our common humanity,” Mr. Chan-Gonzaga said in his remarks. 

The importance of Ben Steele’s drawings is perhaps best summed up by the comment of a young student interviewed for the documentary, and she said: “Mr Steele, thank you for your account. It gives the world a better idea of what happened.” 

The Ben Steele collection will largely be presented to the public in digitized form, through the memorial’s website or the digital tables in the museum; and through reproductions in educational boards. 

The MacArthur Memorial is a museum and research center dedicated to preserving and presenting the life story of General Douglas MacArthur. 

April 9 of every year is also celebrated by the Philippines as Araw ng Kagitingan. (Contact reporter: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

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