BRAINERD, Minn.-A ceremony Sunday morning marked the 75th anniversary of a Brainerd National Guard unit's part in the Bataan Death March during World War II. What Brainerd men did, and what they suffered through, has shaped the town's identity for the seven and a half decades that followed.
"The war came home to Brainerd Thursday," the Brainerd newspaper said in 1942 following news of the surrender April 9.
Former prisoner of war Walt Straka is the last alive out the 64 men that originally made up Brainerd's A Company, 194th Tank Battalion. Thirty-two men died in battle or while prisoners of war.
Straka turns 98 in the fall. He did not attend the ceremony as he won't be back from his winter home in Texas until April 11, he said.
Family members of the A Company men and other residents gathered at the Bataan Memorial in front of the Brainerd Armory for the ceremony, which this year coincided with Palm Sunday. As is tradition, the program had active soldiers read the names of each of the 32 A Company men who died in combat or in captivity. For each name, they hung the soldier's dog tags on the gun barrel of an M3 Stuart tank outside the armory-the same kind of tank the 194th used at Bataan. There was also a rifle salute.
Capt. Chris Bingham, who organizes the annual event, said the present-day 1st Battalion, 194th Armor Regiment traces its identity back to the original 194th Tank Battalion that fought at Bataan. There are several ways the modern unit makes a constant practice of remembering the men who came before, Bingham said.
The unit's radio call sign is "the Bastards"-for example, the battalion commander is identified over the radio as "Bastard Six".
That's a reference to "The Battling Bastards of Bataan", a nickname for the soldiers that fought there during World War II.
A Company was a unit of National Guard soldiers from Brainerd that were federalized (put into the regular U.S. Army) and sent to hold off the increasingly threatening Japanese aggression in the Pacific. Just a few days after the air raid on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese launched a ground invasion of the Philippine Islands, and the Brainerd unit was among the U.S. Army soldiers tasked with holding the invaders off as long as they could. They fought a long, desperate delaying action at the Bataan Peninsula of the island of Luzon, using their tanks to cover the infantry, then retreating themselves, then covering the infantry again as the Americans were forced further and further back amid evaporating supplies.
While they have since passed away, a number of Straka's fellow survivors have told the Dispatch at one point or another what happened.
Henry Peck recalled in 1999 that the 37 mm shell the Stuart tanks fired was about the size of black walnut. After a while, the tiny caliber of the shell didn't matter, because the tanks ran out of both ammunition and gasoline.
Peck spent his 21st birthday trying to dig a foxhole in the rocky ground. He made it about four inches deep and then gave up.
Eventually the Americans found themselves with no other choice than to surrender to the Japanese army on April 9. They were then force-marched north more than 60 miles with almost no food or water, and eventually put in prison camps. Some were beaten or bayoneted by their guards on the way, and the trip killed thousands of Filipino and American troops. A number were later transported to the home islands of Japan, via "Hell Ships" that were sometimes accidentally sunk by the American forces. If they survived disease and starvation on the way over, the POWs were put to work in factories.
The people back home in Brainerd tried to cope with the news that Bataan had fallen. A Brainerd newspaper article from 1942 recorded the reaction of the town.
"Wives of soldiers who gathered with friends and in little groups last night to talk about their soldiers and listen for news, often broke into tears and openly wept," the article said. "One man, walking alone down a city street, suddenly stopped in his tracks and in a loud voice cursed the failure of reinforcements to arrive..."
Don Samuelson, son of A Company member Walter Samuelson, recalled Sunday how he felt as a small boy in 1942, hearing the news.
"I remember walking down the street when the news came out. ... I was just kind of bitter, even as a little kid," he said.
After the news of the surrender came, Samuelson remembered, there was a long stretch where the the families heard nothing. The Death March didn't become public knowledge back in States until many months after it happened.
But thousands of miles away, some of their loved ones endured. Ken Porwoll said his reason for survival was mental distance from what was going on.
"You got in so much of a stupor, you were numb," he said in 1998.
After Peck got back home, he struggled to adjust to a world where one didn't have to worry about being bayoneted by Japanese guards.
"I didn't know how to act," Peck said in 1999. "It was kind of hard to get used to being a free person."
Peck's widow Erma said Sunday that the ceremony meant everything in the world to her.
"We need this," she said.
In a 2015 interview, Straka said it's impossible to set aside the memory of what happened all those decades ago.
"You can forgive, but you can't forget it," he said. "How could you forget it? How could you forget it? I wish I could. I wish I didn't wake up at night."
A Company members who didn't come back
Clinton Quinlen, Arthur Root, Arthur Gattie, Claude Gilmer, Roy Nordstrom, Milan Anderson, Wallace Goodrich, Donald Paine, Gerald Bell, Ernest Gordon
August Bender, Carrol Guin, Billie Brown, Paul Saarinen, Ernest Brusseau, David Karlson, Walter Samuelson, William Smith, Harold Snell, James Clevenger
Wince Solsbee, Pearlie Clevenger, Frank South, Howard Larson, John Spornitz, Richard Davis, Herbert Strobel, Maxwell Dobson, Roy Maghan, Harvey Finch, Bryon Veillette
Source: Minnesota Army National Guard