On the death of Ben Steele, sadness, awe and gratitude


Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

Ben Steele, photographed in May before an ArtWalk showing of some of his paintings.

Should we be mourning the death of Ben Steele or celebrating the miracle that he lived for 98 years and 269 days?

I can’t say I knew Steele well, but I’m reasonably certain he would have favored a celebration. And I’m absolutely sure that he would rather we were happy than not.

His long life was a miracle because of how much deprivation he endured, how much hunger and sickness and physical violence he was subjected to during the Bataan Death March in 1942, and then during 3½ years as a prisoner of war, held by the Japanese.

The second miracle, and maybe the greater one, was that a man with every reason to hang onto a consuming hatred for his captors was able to let go of his hate, like releasing a bird from a cage. That miracle rendered him the most supremely happy human being it was ever my honor to meet.

I was introduced to Steele not quite 10 years ago, at a joint reunion of the Northwest Chapter of the American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor and the 3rd and 4th Defense Battalion Marines. A highlight of the reunion, held in Billings, was the chance to see Steele’s complete collection of 93 paintings and drawings depicting the infamous march and his years as a POW.

Born on a ranch in the Bull Mountains near Roundup, Steele had been acquainted with the cowboy artist and writer Will James as a boy, and with the Western artist J.K. Ralston, but he didn’t start drawing until he was a prisoner. He said he did so in the hope that art would keep him sane.

All but two of those drawings were lost when the Catholic priest to whom he entrusted them went down in a ship in the South China Sea.

When Steele finally came back home, against all odds, having suffered unimaginable horrors, a catalog of diseases and prolonged near-starvation, he got to work. In black-and-white drawings and full-color oil paintings, he created an unforgettable record of what he and his comrades lived through, or how they died.

He would go on to a career as a respected and much-loved art teacher at what was then Eastern Montana College. He started there in 1959, and on the first day of his second semester he had a student by the name of Harry Koyama, whose parents were beet farmers near Hardin.

In “Tears in the Darkness,” Michael and Elizabeth Norman’s story of the Bataan Death March, they said Koyama was the first Japanese Steele had seen since the war, “and his heart hardened and filled with hate.”

When he learned that the student’s family had been held in an internment camp during World War II, he figured the hatred he felt was reciprocated by Koyama. Steele soon realized the futility of it, the absurdity of it, and he and Koyama had a long talk. “By the end of the semester,” the Normans write, “Harry Koyama was among the best students in the class. And Ben Steele was beginning to wonder what had happened to all that hate he’d brought home.”

It might sound trite, but it would not if you’d ever met Steele. I’ve written before about how being in his presence was like sitting with a saint, how you could feel the waves of contentment and joy radiating out from his being.

I wonder how many lives he changed just by being himself. The way he would pause in the middle of a story and throw his head back and laugh was an experience I can’t adequately describe but will never forget.

He told me one of the best short stories I ever heard: After months of recuperation, he was finally heading back to the States on a hospital ship. It was all he could do to stop from gorging himself in the ship’s mess. One night, as he was preparing for bed, a chaplain stopped by to talk to him and noticed a bulge under Steele’s pillow.

He asked what it was but Steele wouldn’t say. Under more questioning, Steele finally lifted up the corner of his pillow to reveal the sandwich he had brought back from the mess.

“Ben,” the chaplain said, “we’re going to keep feeding you.”

“Well,” Steele said, putting the corner of the pillow back down, “I’m not taking any chances.”

And of course Steele laughed at the end of the story, and it was a laugh that brought tears to my eyes.

Given all the fear and hatred and prejudice abroad in the world today, I wish there had been some way of bottling up the experience of meeting Steele and giving it to as many people as possible. He made those base emotions seem dishonorable.

Steele made you realize that if he felt the way he did after suffering everything he suffered, what possible excuse could anyone else have for giving into hate, for lumping people into groups and condemning them en masse? He had learned the value of respecting human beings as individuals and he taught that lesson to others without so much as a single explicit word.

His death comes 5½ months after the death, at 102, of Joseph Medicine Crow, another Montanan whose experiences in World War II shaped his life. I met Medicine Crow only once, but felt something of the same deep peace and wisdom I felt around Steele.

Like Steele, Medicine Crow was an educator, and both of them have had new middle schools in Billings named after them. I suppose we thought we were honoring them, but their names were their own and they honored us by letting us use them.

They were about the same height, as I recall, and neither of them was tall, maybe 5-foot-7 or so. But they were born in a different time and they don’t make giants like they used to.

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