Ben Steele might be the only person in the world who can stir up roaring laughter at a talk about the Bataan Death March. The 94 year-old Montana artist and World War II POW was there, and his account of a horrifying three-and-a-half years as a prisoner of the Japanese army is gut-wrenching. He survived the six-day death march, the slave labor, beriberi, malaria and a multitude of psychological and physical cruelties. While there could be many reasons why he made it through such horrible conditions, but clearly the act of drawing pictures and keeping his humor are at the top of that list.
"Have you gone through the exhibit?" he asks a University of Montana class. "That'll cheer you up."
When a woman stands up and asks how he maintained his hope for survival, he says in a slow, clear voice, "Well, death is awful final." He grins and waits for the laughter to pass before saying, "I decided to be one of the survivors. You can die pretty easy. You can die within a couple of minutes, but to survive is another game."
The Montana Museum of Art and Culture recently acquired Steele's Bataan collection. Walking through War Torn: The Art of Ben Steele you can catch a glimpse of Steele's experience through his eyes. The death march was a forced transfer by the Japanese Army of 75,000 American and Filipino prisoners across the Philippines. Added to that, Steele survived the Tabayas Road work detail where he was one of 50 from 325 men to survive.
As a prisoner, he drew renditions of his life there. First he drew on the floors and walls of his cell. He was the only prisoner that he knew of who drew, and other prisoners would bring him paper when they could find it. If the Japanese soldiers were nearby, he changed the content. "That's when I was drawing cowboys and that sort of thing, nothing of the atrocities," he says. "I didn't let the [Japanese] soldiers see those ones, otherwise I wouldn't be here."
His charcoal drawings depict starving prisoners drinking from mud holes, lugging vegetables they grew for the Japanese soldiers, being forced by bayonet to walk 15 miles a day. There are mass graves. There is one man digging his own grave.
The original drawings went down on a sunken ship and only two survived, but after he was freed, Steele drew everything he could from memory, with charcoal and oil. It's like a journal that documents the walk, and the exhibit, curated by the MMAC's Brandon Reintjes, shows a chronological order of the experience from capture.
Herbert Swick, Ph.D., taught a class at UM about Steele's portrayal of disease. A drawing of Ward 11, in a prisoner hospital where Steele stayed for 18 months, shows a patient suffering from acute dysentery and malnutrition. Another is bloated by beriberi—a vitamin B1 deficiency, which causes edema and can result in nerve damage. Steele recalls how it felt. "I went four or five days without passing water and you just watch yourself swell up," he says. "Well, a doctor gave me a duck egg and it activated my kidneys and I lost all the water. Gallons of water. Then I was as skinny as a crow."
Steele's drawings of the symptoms didn't come from medical knowledge so much as a keen eye for detail. He depicts the round jungle ulcers many prisoners got. Those come from insect bites that fester and get infected because of a weak immune system. Other pictures show men with distended bellies—a sign of malnutrition—and broomstick hair.
"Their hair gets very fine, very out of control," says Swick. "Even in some of the early paintings he's captured those symptoms from lack of proteins and calories and vitamins."
After the ordeal, Steele spent a year in and out of hospitals recovering psychologically. But after that he went on to school at the Cleveland School of the Arts. You can see the jump in technique between earlier pieces and the ones where perspective and other skills come into play. Honestly, the technique doesn't feel like it matters much; the story and style of the pieces are much more interesting.
Steele became a professor of art at MSU-Billings. Despite a sense of humor, he was still angry. At first, he had a hard time separating the Japanese soldiers on the death march from Japanese-American students he met at the school.
"I got a special friend in my hometown of Billings, one of my art students, a very, very good one," he says. "We get together all the time. He was [Japanese-American] and his folks were interned here, so we used to talk about that. When I first saw him come into my class I didn't know what I was going to do with him. I was still on the edge of hatred. And he helped me get over that. I thank him for that all the time. Hatred is so destructive. You've got to get over. I have no animosity against them anymore."
Steele says that he drew the Bataan Death March because he felt obligated to document what happened. And though it's been over 60 years since the experience, he's still filling in the gaps with art. That hasn't kept him from creating other bodies of work. It hasn't kept him from openly and honestly and, sometimes with astonishing joy and humbleness, talking about his experience.
"There isn't a meal I sit down to that I'm not thankful for and, because I used to sleep in the open and in the rain, for my warm bed at night," he says. "I always say that surviving this thing made me a better person. Since I've been liberated I've been very happy because I realized what freedom is. Without it you have nothing."
War Torn: The Art of Ben Steele continues through Saturday, Nov. 19 at the Montana Museum of Art and Culture in UM's PARTV Center. Call 406-243-2019.