MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Minnesota’s last survivor of the Bataan Death March passed away on the Fourth of July.
Walt Straka was 101 years old. During World War II he was a member of the 194th Tank Battalion in the Philippines. After surrendering, Japanese soldiers beat the American POWs and forced them to march more than 60 miles in extreme heat and without food or water.READ MORE: Minnesota Weather: Heat Advisory For Southern Minnesota; Late Severe Storms Possible
Walt’s son and a family friend talked about the legacy he leaves behind.
“I’m so grateful because he said he could have been dead a thousand times. I wouldn’t be here talking to you and that really hits home,” said Paul Straka, Walt’s son.
For years, Paul said his father wouldn’t talk about the Bataan Death March.
“We grew up really in the dark about what happened to dad,” said Paul.
When Walt finally did open up, his stories were things movies are made of. After surviving the death march in which thousands of Americans died, Walt spent 42 months in a Japanese prison camp. At one point he was crammed into a “hell ship” with no food or water and taken to a forced labor camp near Nagasaki. Through it all he relied on his faith and his scrappiness to survive.
“The sirens sound and all the guards, they all scattered when the sirens sounded. He said, ‘I’m not going anywhere.’ He says, ‘I knew where they had their lunch, though.’ He says, ‘I had the best lunch I had in three months,'” said Paul.
After the war, Walt was a business owner in Brainerd where he and his wife raised seven children. He became an inspiration to Don Samuelson, whose dad was also in the Bataan Death March, but later died in a prison camp.READ MORE: Investigation Underway After Minneapolis Firefighters Find Body Near Shoreline
“I was a little kid when we got notice that my father died and I was very bitter. I never really got over it. Yet, I was proud,” said Samuelson.
Proud, because of the stories Walt would tell him. He never let Samuelson forget what his dad and their fellow soldiers went through.
“He was just a great guy. Strong-willed and said it like it was,” said Samuelson.
Walt may be the last of his kind but the sacrifices made will never be forgotten.
“It’s an incredible life. It really was an incredible life,” said Paul. “He was always a survivor.”
Walt was rescued in Nagasaki shortly after the atomic bomb was dropped on the city.
He was known to attend Bataan memorial services every year on April 9.MORE NEWS: Itchy Eyes? Scratchy Throats? Allergies Likely Not To Blame This Summer
Walt is buried at Minnesota State Veterans Cemetery near Camp Ripley.