Walt Straka had eaten one soup can of rice in a week as his thirst for water grew unbearable. The tank corporal had been captured by the Japanese and was in the middle of what became known as the Bataan Death March — a hellish, 65-mile trek to prison camps through a peninsula in the Philippines during World War II in 1942.
Suddenly, Straka spotted a 4-inch pipe snaking from an artesian well.
“I reached my canteen down and felt the butt of a Japanese soldier’s rifle hit my spine, knocking me down,” said Straka, who turned 101 two weeks ago.
A group of fellow Brainerd soldiers picked him up by his armpits and dragged him along. He had to keep marching “or they would have bayoneted me for sure. Men were going insane, starving, dropping like flies. Hell couldn’t be worse.”
Straka, then 22 and a shoemaker’s son, was one of 64 Minnesota National Guard troops from Brainerd belonging to Company A of the U.S. Army’s 194th Tank Battalion. They were sent to the Philippines in September 1941, stopping for three days in Hawaii, where Straka toured the U.S.S. Arizona on Battleship Row in Pearl Harbor. Three months later, the Japanese attacked the base, sank the Arizona and war was on.
Half the Brainerd men in Company A joined the thousands of American soldiers who died in combat on the death march or in malaria-plagued slave labor camps. Straka is the lone member of the company still alive, and on Wednesday he’ll mark his 80th Veterans Day since joining the military.
“I can’t believe I’m still alive — when I wake up in the morning and see the ceiling tiles, I say a little prayer,” he said from his room at the Edgewood Vista assisted-living facility in Brainerd, where he moved in June. Well into his 90s, Straka was shoveling snow outside his longtime Brainerd home amid the lakes, pines and Mississippi River country where he was born in 1919.
“I lived through the end of the last big epidemic,” he said about the 1918 influenza outbreak. “Our town doctor died in that one. I’ve seen it all.”
Straka was among 32 soldiers from Company A who made it home from the war to Brainerd, where he went on to sell used cars and raise seven children with his wife of nearly 65 years, Cleta. She died in 2009.
All told, 75,000 Filipino and American troops were part of the forced march through Bataan.
“Last I heard, there were three guys left from Bataan,” Straka said. “If you told me I could have all the gold in Fort Knox to make it through what we did, I’d tell you to keep it. It was really rough.”
Some big pieces of gold did come Straka’s way just in time for his birthday last month. He was presented with the Congressional Gold Medal, a rare honor, and the Minnesota World War II Memorial Medallion for “his intrepidity and indomitable courage against a brutal enemy.”
Previous recipients of the Congressional Gold Medal include George Washington, Thomas Edison, Charles Lindbergh, Mother Teresa and Rosa Parks.
“I guess I’m in pretty good company,” said Straka, who declined an invitation to receive the medal at the White House. “I would have gone if Obama was still in there,” he said.
The middle of seven children, Straka was the son of a Bohemian immigrant father and a Viennese-born mother who ran a shoe store in Brainerd. He stood nearly 6-foot-2 and weighed 202 pounds when he joined the Army in 1941.
“I got down to 89 pounds by the time we dropped the bomb on Nagasaki,” he said.
During his three-plus years between the U.S. surrender at Bataan and the war’s end in 1945, Straka endured abusive guards at a forced-labor steel mill and swarms of mosquitoes that infected him with cerebral malaria that can cause the brain to swell.
“I came out of it but a good friend from Brainerd did not,” he said. “I remember the last time I saw him, he didn’t wave back. He was gone, insane. I cried all night.”
Decades later at a veterans’ event, his friend’s son asked Straka how his father had died.
“I looked him in the eye and said, ‘Do you really want to know?’ He said yes, so I told him. There were tears and we shook hands.”
The low point? After the Bataan Death March, Straka was packed into a boxcar and shipped to Camp O’Donnell, a former Filipino base seized by the Japanese. With no latrines, feces everywhere and huge lines for sips of water, Straka said he considered suicide.
“I could have died so many times, so I’m not worried about dying,” he said. “I’m a pretty lucky guy in many ways.”
His son Paul, a 65-year-old retired state trooper, said his father seldom discussed the war until he was in his 80s.
“His memory is better than mine,” Paul Straka said. “Those memories are a piece of history and when he’s gone, they’re gone.”
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: strib.mn/MN1918.