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Artist found inspiration in POW camp

A Ben Steele drawing called, "Rules and Regulations," depicts survivors of the Bataan Death March arriving at Camp O'Donnell, where a Japanese officer tells them what they must do to survive in the camp.

He lived through the earliest battles of World War II, and barely survived some of its cruelest crimes.

Before Ben Steele earned his master’s degree at the University of Denver in 1955, his life as an artist began in a Japanese prisoner of war camp in the Philippines.

The first couple decades of Steele’s life were a shade of idyllic. Before he was hunted, shot at, beaten, brutalized, starved and enslaved, his American Western childhood was largely colored by livestock, campfires, rugged earth and wide skies.

The southern Montana ranchland he roamed was his playground, schoolyard and job site. He grew to be resourceful, and to cherish his freedom.

At 23, Steele enlisted in the Army Air Corps, and 15 months later his once-boundless world was reduced to a patch of dirt.

He was stationed at Clark Field in the Philippine island of Luzon on the day Japanese bombs decimated the American air fleet there. Days later, the American and Philippine forces retreated to the Bataan Peninsula. Three grueling months later what was left of the combined forces surrendered to the Japanese and Steele became a prisoner of war. 

Already weakened, Steele and the others walked the 60 unsheltered miles of the Bataan Death March with no food and little water or rest. They were pushed beyond exhaustion, kicked and beaten. Some were stabbed, shot or run over by tanks.

After a month in a prison camp, Steele was assigned to a work detail that nearly cost him his life. Forced to carve a road through the jungle, yet poorly provisioned, the prisoners cooked the often rotten food they were given in a rusted wheelbarrow. Provided no shelter, they at times resorted to bedding on river rocks or on a large leaf on the ground. They were pummeled by heavy rains and beset by disease-carrying insects. Only 50 of more than 300 survived the two-month ordeal, and most of those had to be carried out, Steele among them.

“That was worse than the Death March, as far as I’m concerned,” Steele says. “That almost did me in. If I’d been another week, I wouldn’t have lived.”

He spent months afterward in one of the prison camps being treated by Navy doctors, and it was more than six months before he was able to walk. But it was during this long recuperation that Steele took the first steps down a road that would lead him to DU and beyond.

Lying alone for hours, Steele started to draw, first on the floor with hunks of charcoal, then on bits of paper used to start the cooking fires, eventually with materials received in boxes from the Red Cross. He sketched images from his life back in Montana, horses, cowboys and such, but other times he drew what he had witnessed — sick, starving and murdered men, and their Japanese captors and murderers.

“I did it to pass the time of day,” Steele says. “I thought I was losing my mind.”

But there was more reason than idleness that moved Steele to create these drawings, especially given the danger he faced if caught. A sense of responsibility as a witness drove him to recreate many of his drawings, even after the originals were lost at sea. And it has impelled him throughout his life to continue to make the drawings that testify to the horrors he witnessed, and experienced, as a prisoner of war.

“I kind of felt an obligation because I have the talent to do it,” Steele said. “It’s something I have to do. You didn’t want to waste all that suffering.”

Following such dark days, Steele made a choice to always look toward the light. In a few years, he returned home as an art instructor to Eastern Montana College in Billings, Mont., rose to be head of the department, and had left positive impressions on countless students by the time he retired in 1982.

Former student and artist Harry Koyama says everyone at the college was fond of Steele.

A recent photo of Steele.

“He’s such a warm human being,” Koyama says. “There aren’t many people in the world to survive what he did and use that to make themselves a better person. He’s one of the best people on the planet.”

Another former student, world-renowned landscape artist Clyde Aspevig, echoes that sentiment.

“The great thing about Ben was his demeanor. He always had a smile on his face,” Aspevig recalls of his teacher. “Even when he talks today he always ends his sentences with a smile and a chuckle.

“He taught us how to be humble, resilient, forgiving. He taught us how to live, by example.”

Even at 93, Steele says he’s just grateful to be free.

“I was very happy to get out of there, and I’ve been happy ever since. I actually think being a POW made me a better person,” he says. “I never go to bed at night [until] I thank God I’m free.”

Steele’s experiences were captured in the best-selling book, Tears in the Darkness (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2009) by Michael and Elizabeth Norman. The book’s website has more information about Steele and the Bataan Death March.

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