Today’s #VeteranOfTheDay is Army Veteran Walter Bernard Straka, a 101 year old and the last survivor of the Bataan Death March from Minnesota.
Bernard Straka was born in 1919 in Brainerd, Minnesota. Raised during the Great Depression, he initially aspired to be a lawyer; however, he instead chose to enlist in the National Guard in 1936. Straka trained at Fort Lewis, Washington, in 1941. Upon completing his training, he served with Company A, 194th Tank Battalion.
In September 1941, Straka deployed to Fort Stotsenburg in the Philippines as a response to increased Japanese activity in the area. Three months after arrival, he fought in the Battle of Luzon where he saved his tank driver, Arvid Danielson, by using his t-shirt to stop Danielson’s bleeding caused by shrapnel. In January 1941, Straka fought in the Battle of Bataan, until Gen. Edward P. King ordered his troops to surrender in April 1942 after most of them were wounded or ill.
Following the surrender of Bataan, Straka embarked on the 65-mile, ten day Bataan Death March. He marched with four other soldiers from Company A. After arriving in San Fernando, the enemy divided prisoners of war into groups of 100 and sent them to Camp O’Donnell to work as slave laborers. Here, Straka faced inhumane conditions, denied medicine or spare clothes. Straka received water on an inconsistent schedule; one time, he endured three days of dehydration before receiving something to drink. He nearly died when a Japanese soldier struck his spine with the butt of his rifle. Immobilized, fellow POWs carried him away from the soldier.
In July 1944, Straka and 1,500 other POWs boarded Nissyo Maru, a Japanese ship bound for Moji, Japan. Upon arrival one month later, POWs went to different camps. Straka went to Fukuoka, where he worked at a steel mill in Kokura until September 1945, when the POWs were liberated. He went to Okinawa, where he learned that the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki was meant for the steel mill where he was working. Heavy clouds forced the pilots to change their target from Kokura to Nagasaki.
Straka returned to the U.S. in October 1945. After recovering from the traumas that he experienced overseas, he discharged at Fort Sheridan, Illinois. In 1946. Straka married Cleta Marie Sylvester, and together they raised seven children. On October 14, 2020, he received a Congressional Gold Medal in a ceremony held in Brainerd where he currently resides.
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Writer: Raymond Lin
Editor: Jacob Reis
Fact checker: Carl Wesseln
Graphic artist: Helena Strohmier