BILLINGS — Ben Steele — a Bataan Death March survivor whose art helped him maintain his sanity as a prisoner of war and helped him forgive his captors — has died in Montana. He was 98.
Julie Jorgenson said her father died Sunday in Billings surrounded by his family, including his wife Shirley and another daughter, Rosemarie Steele. He had been in hospice care for more than a year and succumbed to an infection, Jorgenson said.
Steele was born on Nov. 17, 1917, in the small Montana town of Roundup and grew up riding horses, roping cattle and occasionally delivering supplies to western artist Will James.
“His parents told him not to hang out much with Will James because he was a drinker, but Dad never said a bad word about him,” Jorgenson told The Billings Gazette.
Steele was a U.S. Army Air Corps private in the Philippines when the Japanese captured his unit in 1942 during World War II. Thousands of soldiers died during the 66-mile march under a scorching tropical sun.
He was bayoneted, starved and beaten and suffered dysentery, malaria, pneumonia and septicemia. He said he kept his sanity during 42 months of confinement by sketching Montana scenes — cowboys, horses and barns.
“I kept little scraps of paper, the inside of cigarette packages, that kind of thing,” Steele said in a 2004 interview with the Gazette.
He acknowledged he could have been shot if his sketches were discovered. His originals were lost, but Steele painted scenes from his capture as he went through a long recovery, including trying to regain the 80 pounds he lost.
“I had lots of problems to work through,” he said, “and the doctors thought the art was a good idea.”
Steele spent his career teaching art at Eastern Montana College, which became Montana State University-Billings.
He said he learned to forgive his Japanese captors because of his relationship with Harry Koyama, an art student of Japanese heritage.
“He’s been a part of my life since I met him in college in the 1960s,” Koyama, a western artist with a gallery in Billings, said about Steele. “That’s even more of a humbling experience to know that I had not just an effect, but a positive effect on his life.”
Steele’s powerful images of his time in captivity are housed at the Montana Museum of Art and Culture at the University of Montana in Missoula.
While many people knew Steele’s war stories and what he endured as a prison of war, “it’s his personality, his warm caring personality that made people love him,” Jorgenson said. “His students would come up to me and say, ‘Ben and I have a special bond.’ But he made everyone feel special.”
Steele’s survival was chronicled in the 2009 New York Times best-seller “Tears in the Darkness: The Story of the Bataan Death March and Its Aftermath,” by Michael and Elizabeth Norman.
As an Ohio teenager, Lexi Winkelfoos traveled to Montana to meet Steele after reading the book for a history project last year.
“I just wanted to know that he was happy after everything he had been through,” Winkelfoos said at the time.
A documentary film of Steele’s life, “Survival Through Art,” narrated by Alec Baldwin has just been completed, Jorgenson said.
In March, ground was broken for Ben Steele Middle School in Billings.
A memorial service is scheduled at 1:30 p.m. Oct. 4 at Montana Pavilion at MetraPark.
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