Ten minutes after U.S. Marines helped Iraqis topple a 40-foot statute of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad today two Brainerd area Bataan Death March survivors observed the fall of Bataan and remembered their fellow soldiers who died 61 years ago in less glorious days.
Walt Straka, 83, Brainerd, and Henry Peck, 82, Merrifield, placed a wreath in front of a small, T-3 Stuart tank, similar to the type they manned as young men in the Philippines. As members of Company A, 194th Tank Battalion, a Brainerd-based National Guard unit that left Minnesota in February of 1941, Peck and Straka were part of a group that earned the nickname the "Battling Bastards of Bataan."
Under-fed U.S. and Philippine soldiers fought against the Japanese for four months with antiquated equipment and no military support. Following their surrender on April 9, 1942, they were subjected to a brutal march in blistering heat with little food or water. Many American soldiers were shot or beheaded on the trek that became known as the Bataan Death March.
Peck said the unfolding televised drama of Iraqis trying to bring down a prominent statue of Saddam in Iraq's capital city detained him before this morning's Bataan ceremony.
"I damn near came late," he said at the National Guard Armory as he joked with Straka just before the ceremony.
Straka noted that if the 194th Tank Battalion had anywhere near the type of equipment and provisions that U.S. forces in Iraq have, the Japanese would never have taken Bataan.
"It would have been a picnic," he ventured.
Their World War II experience was anything but a picnic, however as only 29 of the Company A, 194th Tank Battalion's 61 officers and enlisted men survived to see the end of the war.
Straka said he sympathized with the U.S. POWs in Iraq and compared the treatment they apparently have received to his own. "It looks like the brutality is still there," he said.
Mayor James Wallin, who declared today Bataan Day, noted at the ceremony that only 20 percent of the 75,000 American and Philippine troops who were captured on Bataan survived the three years between the fall of the peninsula and end of the war.
Gene Bierhaus, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran of Iwo Jima in World War II, was among the dozen or so people who attended this morning's Bataan ceremony. He noted the crowds for the wreath laying have been getting a little smaller as time passes.
Charley Extrand, a veteran who's active with the 194th Regiment, said the turnout was considerably larger at Saturday's memorial ceremony and march re-enactment.
Pastor Dwight Johnson led the group in prayer and the Brainerd VFW presented the colors and played a recording of "Taps" as the crowd braved a stiff April wind at the outdoor ceremony.
Though they have suffered from physical ailments relating to their captivity Peck and Straka are both in relative good health and feel lucky to be alive.
Straka, in particular, is counting his blessings after being struck by a golf cart in Texas and breaking his left shoulder last fall.
"For a split second I thought this is it," Straka said of the frightening incident -- one that convinced him he must have something in common with the cat that has nine lives.
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