PHARR — All he wanted was a drink of water. Leaning over to take a sip from the Artesian well, he felt the butt end of a rifle smash into his lower back and knock him down. Falling over, he knew for sure this was the end because, if you fell along the Bataan Road you were killed, no questions asked.
But it wasn’t his day to die. Feeling himself quickly hoisted up, his buddies pulled him to his feet and half carried him along the road. Walter Straka, at 20 years old, found himself among the approximate 78,000 prisoners of war — 12,000 Americans, 66,000 Filipinos — forced to walked from the tip of the Bataan Peninsula in the Philippine Islands to Camp O’Donnell, with a smothering rail ride a part of the horror trip — calculated from 60 to 90 miles.
Later, Walter was to think, “I couldn’t even get a bowl of rice. What did I do? I don’t deserve this. I didn’t start the war. I fought for my country. Don’t blame me for it. I’m just a kid.”
But that day and every day for the next 43 months, all he thought about was . . . “how to stay alive today.”
Walter was born and brought up in Brainerd, Minn.
“It can’t be beat in the spring and fall,” said Walter. “I was born in the city and my dad owned a shoe store there for a long time.”
The middle of seven children he enjoyed his childhood. Working for his dad in his shoe store, for 75 cents he would dye shoes to match the dresses for brides, their bridal party, and any other folk who needed dyed shoes.
“All I did was pay for the supplies,” he said. “I got to keep the rest of the money. It worked out pretty nice.”
What fascinated him most about the shoe business was how his father could satisfy people having foot problems.
“He was almost like a foot doctor,” Walter said. “Even today I see people who say, ‘I was hardly able to walk until your dad helped me.”
Growing up during the depression Walter remembers it well.
“The depression hit hard at home too but we had a good income and never suffered,” he said. “Some of my friends were hardly eating. Groceries were selling hamburger - six pounds for a quarter - and nobody had the quarter.”
After high school Walter joined the National Guard, following a bunch of his friends.
“I joined the Guard in 1936 and we trained at Camp Ripley, Minn. It was like a Boy Scout camp,” he said. “I thought it was a lot of fun. In 1940 they federalized us and in ‘41 they sent us to the Philippines. We were the first armored force to ever leave the United States. Ours was a tank company.”
Walter was an observant guy, taking in all around him, using it advantageously during the war.
About half way over they found out they were headed for the Philippines and they were to follow the “Orange Plan,” one of the “color plans” designed to meet a specific emergency designated by a color corresponding usually to the code name of the nation involved — ORANGE was for Japan.
In essence the plan was to defend the Philippines — assuming it would be Japan’s first target — then having the American fleet come and take the defenders out of harms way. A few things threw the kibosh on this plan which had originated before WWI.
“There was food and ammunition on the docks of Manila for the soldiers in Bataan but after the war started, all the suppliers sent into Bataan were empty trucks,” said a furious Walter. “Empty trucks for what? That was a dereliction of duty! We didn’t have anything to eat. We didn’t have the right ammunition for our guns! We were starving!”
Instead of seeing the American fleet as the Orange Plan called for, all they saw was Japanese bomb ships out in the harbor with the big red rising sun.
“We’re not going to get out of here,” he thought.
“I firmly thought I was going to die there,” Walter said.
Taken prisoner, he and his buddies listened to his commanding officer instead of taking off. “I can’t make you do this,” he said. “But I think the more of us that stick together, the more of us will get back to Brainerd.” So, their whole tank outfit stayed and began their long journey through hell.
“Anything you hear about that death march, believe because there’s nobody that could make up such a story,” he said, somberly. “It was as close to hell as anything you could ever imagine.”
He watched as fellow soldiers were bayoneted when they fell, how men —delirious from thirst — would swoop into a ditch full of rancid, stagnant water and go mad after drinking. With little water and only one-half of a tomato soup can of rice the whole trip, the already starving, malnourished, disease-riddled men struggled to help each other along the Bataan Road, watching over 1,200 Americans and thousands of Filipinos die.
Time and again, Walter thought it was the end of the road for him.
“How lucky can you be?” he said. “I should have been dead a thousand times from disease, brutality and work.”
Through suffocating train rides, journeys in ship holes which stripped every ounce of humanity from the soldiers, working in conditions not fit for humans and fighting off Cerebral Malaria, dysentery and many other diseases, Walter watched, snatched dried fish here, volunteered for duty to bring him closer to fresh water or food, and hung on with whatever spirit was left in his 89 pound body.
In Kokura, Japan, working as a slave in a steel mill, the day arrived when the announcement was made. Japan had surrendered. The war was over. He didn’t know what to do.
“I went into my bunk and just laid there, almost immobile,” Walter said. “I just couldn’t hardly fathom it.”
The next day the Air Force began food drops into the starving POWs.
“We had orders to bring it all in — don’t touch it,” he said, with a grin. “Going out to get it, I reached into one of the barrels. Candy bars! I looked around and smashed one into my mouth so fast!”
Walter has carried that whole experience with him throughout his life.
“You can forgive, but you can’t forget,” he said, gravely. “I lay in bed a lot of nights and wake up — glad to see the ceiling because there were no ceilings in those barracks. I still can’t fathom today how one human could treat another one that bad! I can’t fathom that.”
Finally returning to Brainerd, after months in hospitals, Walter married Cleta.
“She was going with a nice guy and quit him like a hot potato,” he said. “I don’t know why. But, we got married and had seven children.”
Proud of the fact he’s never had a “job,” Walter had successful car dealerships and built houses.
“I never worked for anybody,” he said. “I built the houses to keep the kids off the dope. On weekends I’d say, ‘We’re going to roof a house’ and they couldn’t say no. I paid them and I’m their dad.”
After the kids were grown, Walter and Cleta bought a motorhome and traveled.
“We went anyplace we wanted to go,” he said. “It was a lot of fun and good therapy for me. I sold my business to my oldest son.”
Returning to Manila on the 25th reunion in 1967 was a touching event.
“We took a bus back to Bataan. The bus was noisy from all the boozing and talk,” he said. “When we got to the Bataan Road, the Filipinos were standing there with tears in their eyes. They saw us come in and they saw us come out. You could have heard a pin drop on that bus.”
Now, he’ll go to schools to give talks and asks the students, “Any of you (seniors) heard about Bataan? They’ll say, ‘That’s something you twirl.’ When I went to school, we studied history and knew what was going on in this world. They don’t even mention this in school. I don’t understand it.”
Vital and alert at 90, Walter still enjoys his time in the Valley.
“A friend told us to come to Texas instead of going to Florida, so we did,” he said. “We’ve been coming to Tip O Texas since 1986. My wife fell in love with the place.”
Attributing his being alive to a very good family life, a good wife and sensible diet, no smoking and mediocre living, he ponders his life.
“I’m just thankful I’m here,” Walter said. “I can wake up tomorrow and think, ‘How Godly lucky I am to be here.”
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