The opportunity to meet truly inspiring people remains the No. 1 perquisite of a journalist's career and there's no question that Bataan Death March survivors Henry Peck and Walt Straka are at the top of my list.
During World War II, when the two men were in their early 20s and answerable to their brutal Japanese captors, most people wouldn't have bet a plug nickel on their chances of living to the age of 90.
That thought often occurred to me as I would walk past Straka's north Brainerd home and see him watering the grass on a beautiful summer day.
What a gift, I would think to myself. What an unexpected blessing they must feel to just to enjoy the simple pleasures of life after spending most of World War II as POWs in the cruelest of predicaments.
Peck has told the Dispatch in multiple interviews that while a prisoner he contracted malaria, was beaten, worked to exhaustion and was malnourished to a weight of only 80 pounds.
Similarly, Straka told the Dispatch how a Japanese soldier rammed him with a rifle butt for stepping out of line, causing back ailments he has suffered with for years. Straka has also spoken of the nightmares, the fatigue that limited his post-war activities as he tried to save his energy to run East Side Auto and help raise his family of seven.
As of New Year’s Day, when Henry Peck of Merrifield turns 90, both men will have defied the odds and achieved that milestone. Peck now lives at the Good Samaritan Society-Bethany in south Brainerd. He has suffered multiple strokes and has difficulty communicating. Straka, who has moved to south Brainerd, is able to get around on his own and do his own grocery shopping.
It’s been years since I attended my first Bataan day commemoration and met these two heroes. Since then I’ve had the privilege to interview them on numerous occasions. Their wariness toward a reporter who was young enough to be a son and ignorant of the horrors of war slowly gave way to familiarity and ease.
During each interview the two men graciously recounted to me the horrors they were subjected to during their imprisonment. While the topic wasn’t a pleasant one it was apparent they felt that it was important for younger generations to know the sacrifices made by U.S. soldiers.
There have been lighter moments with the two veterans. The veterans who fought on the Philippines peninsula of Bataan agreed to an unusual request in 2002, when two professors asked to make plaster of Paris molds of their feet so the actual footprints of Bataan Death March survivors could be set in concrete at a memorial in Las Cruces, N.M. While their feet were being molded the two exchanged good-natured ribbing barbs about who had the bigger feet — Straka is size 12 and Peck is size 10 1/2.
Straka is the more reserved of the two men. He had no love of the Japanese people after his ordeal nor any interest in buying Japanese products. He said in one interview he was grateful to God every morning when he wakes up in his own bedroom rather the two by four ceilings he remembered from the Japanese POW camp.
Peck has been outspoken about how the U.S. soldiers in Bataan were left “like shooting ducks” and eventually were ordered to surrender to the Japanese.
“I didn’t give up hope,” he said in a 2003 interview. “I wanted to live. We knew they were coming, but they were damn slow.”
Peck will be honored at a surprise birthday party from 1 to 3:30 p.m. Saturday at Good Samaritan Society — Bethany in south Brainerd. Friends are invited to greet him and guests are asked to not bring gifts.
Peck’s birthday offers all of us a chance to reflect on two heroes who survived a hellish wartime experience and then went on to quietly live long, productive lives in Brainerd. It would serve us all well to think about their sacrifices and the continuing struggles of all of our elderly veterans the next time we get impatient at a slow-moving or confused senior citizen who may very well have fought for our liberties before we were even born.