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Jon T.
Democrat MT

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  • Tribute to Benjamin Charles Steele

    by Senator Jon Tester

    Posted on 2014-12-10

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    TESTER. Mr. President, I wish to honor Benjamin Charles Steele, a veteran of World War II.

    On behalf of all Montanans and all Americans, I stand to say ``thank you'' to Ben for his service to our Nation.

    It is my honor to share the story of Ben's service in World War II, because no story of bravery--especially not one from our ``greatest generation''--should ever be forgotten.

    Ben was born on November 11, 1917, in Roundup, MT. The son of ranchers, Ben loved the outdoors. Sometimes he would sneak out of school by pretending to go to the bathroom, but instead would jump on his horse and head for the ranch.

    Ben was 22 when he enlisted in the Army Air Corps in Missoula, MT on September 9, 1940.

    In September of 1941, Ben was assigned to serve in the Philippines.

    Ben had barely arrived in country when the Army gave him a rifle and told Ben ``now you're in the infantry.'' The Japanese attacked on December 8. A few weeks later, Ben's unit was evacuated from Clark Field and ordered to the Bataan Peninsula. In January 1942, Ben was sent to the front lines.

    Three months later, the front lines collapsed. Soon after, Ben's unit was captured and he and his fellow soldiers began the infamous Bataan Death March.

    Ben marched for 6 days and was fed only two cups of rice. The American captives were tormented by the Japanese soldiers. They were forced to walk closely together, and if a prisoner stumbled, or worse, fell, they were bayoneted or shot and killed.

    Ben was a prisoner for three and one-half years. During this time, at great risk to himself, he secretly made drawings of the torture and cruelty he and his fellow prisoners endured. On one construction project, 324 prisoners started work beside Ben. By the end, Ben was one of only 50 surviving prisoners.

    Ben then was sent to Japan where he did hard labor in the Japanese mines. He was liberated once the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, with Ground Zero less than 80 miles from Ben's coal mine. When he was freed, Ben had dysentery, pneumonia, malaria, blood poisoning and beriberi.

    Ben was discharged from the U.S. Air Force on July 10, 1946. After beginning his art career drawing on the concrete floor of a prison in the Philippines, Ben pursued a formal art education. In 1955, he received a master's in art from the University of Denver.

    Ben then taught art at Montana State University-Billings. To this day, he continues to recreate the images of his imprisonment through drawings and paintings.

    Ben was never ``officially'' assigned to the infantry; the military just handed him a weapon and told him to go fight--and he did. He fought for months before he was captured.

    Ben is now 97 years old, living in a nursing home in Billings, MT, fighting his last battle--and still painting. Ben never requested any medals or recognition for his brave and incredible service. A true World War II veteran, Ben feels he simply did the job he was sent to the Philippines to do.

    But today, it is my honor to honor Ben Steele's true heroism, sacrifice, and dedication to service by including his story in the Congressional Record.

    Thank you, Ben. ____________________

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