- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 24, 2009


On Memorial Day, forget Guantanamo Bay or Abu Ghraib. If you want to know about real torture, consider the scene in Bilibid Prison in Manila at some point in 1942.

It is described in the soon-to-be-released “Tears in the Darkness: The Story of the Bataan Death March and its Aftermath,” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), by Michael and Elizabeth Norman:

“Here, for example, on a thin cotton pad on the concrete floor in Ward 11, a dim prison dormitory, is Army Air Corps Private Benjamin C. Steele, serial number 190-18-989. The patient presents symptoms of multiple infectious diseases, indications of starvation, and an infected puncture wound of the right instep. His pulse is 110, irregular and thready; his blood pressure is 95/50 but difficult to hear because of extensive edema; he has a fever of 103 degrees. He is often not oriented to time or place and must be forced to eat. His treatment protocol involves quinine for the malaria, carbasone and emetine and liquids for the dysentery, sulfa powder for the foot infection and incipient gangrene, and complete bed rest for his jaundice and pneumonia. A treatment plan with one notable omission: It did not address the most serious and easily treated of Ben Steele’s maladies, the one turning him into a fleshy elephantine grotesque, beriberi.”

From Tuesday through Saturday of this week, that same Ben Steele, now 91, will attend in San Antonio what is being billed as the very last of the annual meetings of the American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor. Only about 50 of Mr. Steele’s fellow survivors remain in good enough shape to attend, and only six or seven of those will be, like Mr. Steele, an actual Death March survivor.

The march itself was marred by unspeakable brutality, with many uncontroverted tales of beatings, bayonetings and beheadings. “The worst was watching guys being bayoneted and everything,” Mr. Steele told The Washington Times by phone from Billings, Mont., on Friday. “I never saw an actual beheading but I saw the results of it. I was bayoneted myself in the butt. I didn’t get hurt very bad, but I was stabbed and lost about a cup of blood. I was trying to help a person and they came along and made me drop him and I didn’t do it fast enough, I guess, so they came by and stabbed me. They came and bayoneted guys who weren’t doing anything. And if the guys fell out they would bayonet the guys to death. It was quite an experience.”

Treatment like that during the march led to Mr. Steele’s near-death experience in the prison camp, described above. But the man survived that, and another three-plus years of imprisonment - and now another 64 years back in what is, in his case, very much the home of the brave. These are the sorts of men who have served this country. And it is the hundreds of thousands of their colleagues who did not survive, but whose memory is carried by men like Mr. Steele, whom we honor this week of Memorial Day.

As for Mr. Steele, a Montana cowboy before World War II, he became a noted artist, first as a “crafts director” in the Army for 10 years after the war, and then, after getting several degrees, as a full professor of arts at Montana State University. Mr. Steele’s drawings are used as illustrations throughout “Tears in the Darkness.” What he will enjoy this week at the San Antonio meeting, he said, is “just getting together and talking and eating with the guys.”

His horrific experience in the Pacific theater, he said without a trace of open bitterness, “made me appreciate my country. I’m a very patriotic guy. And it made me appreciate a good meal and a warm bed at night. It even makes me appreciate a drink of water, some of the smaller things we take for granted. It makes me appreciate my home. And of course, freedom. If you want to know what freedom is worth, ask a POW.”

Sir, we salute you and all your colleagues fallen around the world for the sake of our country. Our own freedom exists thanks to you.

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