Walt Straka wakes up in his north Brainerd home and thanks God every morning when he sees his own bedroom rather than the wood two-by-four ceilings he remembers from a Japanese POW camp.
"It's just amazing to be alive," he said Tuesday as he recounted last weekend's re-enactment of the Bataan Death March at White Sands, N.M. Straka, 81, and three other Brainerd area death march survivors were honored at the event. The veterans were invited to walk the last 100 meters of an emotional 26.2-mile march that included 3,500 runners and walkers from seven countries who endured 86-degree temperatures while they marched or ran. Some soldiers made the journey in full military gear.
Accompanying Straka to New Mexico were fellow death march survivors Ken Porwoll of St. Paul, Russell Swearingen of Crosby and Henry Peck of rural Brainerd. Also making the trip were two members of the 194th Tank Regiment, a veterans group, Jay Beebe of Baxter and Wayne Hays of Brainerd.
The 100-mile death march followed the surrender of U.S. forces on the Phillipine peninsula of Bataan in 1942. The Bataan Death March anniversary will be marked in Brainerd on Monday with a ceremony at the Brainerd National Guard Armory. National Guard officials said details of the ceremony will be announced soon.
After he was liberated from a Japanese camp, Straka came home, married and raised a family of seven. He owned East Side Auto for more than 30 years.
He said he's in good health, attributing his fortune to good genes and medication he has taken ever since he returned to the states. Because of of illnesses he suffered during his imprisonment, all of his energy had to be conserved for his job and raising his family. He said he gave up participation in any service clubs or social events because he lacked the stamina. He also gave up smoking and drinking.
"I couldn't go out in the evening," he said.
New Mexico had many soldiers in Bataan and as a result the World War II veterans there were awarded special benefits. Straka said the only payment he received that wasn't available to every other GI was $1,795 -- the amount the U.S. Army figured they would have spent on his food and clothing had he not been imprisoned.
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