BRAINERD, Minn. — Brainerd’s Walter Straka marched in treacherous conditions for about 65 miles over six days in the infamous Bataan Death March that began April 10, 1942.
Straka has told the story many times of the Bataan Death March, that he shouldn’t be alive, that he “should have been dead a thousand times.”
But he didn’t die, he is a survivor. And decades later, at age 100, Straka is Minnesota’s last surviving member of the Bataan Death March during World War II.
On Wednesday, Oct. 14, Straka was honored for his services during World War II with the prestigious Congressional Gold Medal and the Minnesota World War II Memorial Medallion.
The ceremony honoring Straka was hosted through the Filipino Veteran Recognition and Education Project, Freedom Flight and the 194th Tank Regiment and took place outside of Edgewood Brainerd Senior Living in Brainerd, where Straka moved into in June from his longtime Brainerd home.
Straka was born Oct. 24, 1919, and soon will be celebrating his 101 birthday. He was 10 years old when the Great Depression descended on the world. His family struggled to put food on the table and heat their home. Straka told the Dispatch in 2019, he envisioned himself to be a lawyer and intended to pursue that as a career, but his fateful decision to enlist for a short stint in the National Guard changed his life.
Straka, along with 64 Brainerd men in Company A, 194th Tank Battalion, left Brainerd Feb. 10, 1941, as the world was already embroiled in war. They arrived in the Philippine Islands on Sept. 26, 1941, months before Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese. They were stationed near Clark Field on the island of Luzon and were the first tank company in the Far East before World War II. They fought on Bataan, isolated and without supplies, until they were ordered to surrender. Bataan fell on April 9, 1942.
The infamous Death March began April 10 with soldiers marching about 65 miles over six days. Those who didn’t perish on the march faced deplorable conditions as Prisoners Of War and would not be liberated until 1945.
Of the 64 men from the tank company who left Brainerd, three were killed in action and 29 died as POWs.
“I should have been dead a thousand times,” Straka said in a Forum News Service interview in November 2015. “That 91 days, I was in range of getting killed every minute.”
Straka survived firefights isolated and trapped in a tank, he was all but paralyzed by a rifle butt to the spine during the death march and felt bullets splitting the air between his legs. He survived bouts with malaria and dysentery and was down to 89 pounds from starvation.
On Wednesday, Straka, wearing a mask and a Bataan baseball cap, sat in his wheelchair as his son Paul Straka wheeled him outside for the ceremony. Five of Straka’s six children were in attendance. Straka and his wife, Cleta, who died in 2009, raised seven children. Their daughter Jane Straka died in 1976.
Retired Maj. Gen. Gerald Lang of the U.S. Army presented the award to Straka. The Congressional Gold Medal is an award bestowed by the U.S. Congress. It is the highest expression of national appreciation for distinguished achievements and contributions.
“What an honor it is for me personally to be able to honor you, to present this award,” Lang said to Straka. “I can tell you that I've given a lot of awards, and a lot of medals throughout my career. But I want you to know that there's certainly a real privilege and an honor to be able to present to Walt the Congressional Gold Medal. The Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the Congressional Gold Medal, are the highest civilian awards in the United States.
“The Congressional Gold Medal seeks to honor those individuals or groups ... who have performed an achievement that has an impact on American history and a culture that is likely to be recognized as a major achievement in the recipient’s field long after the achievement. Well this is long after the achievement. From what I could find in my research as of 2019, only 167 people or groups of people have been awarded the Congressional Gold Medal.”
Recipients of the Congressional Gold Medal include George Washington, who was the first recipient 244 years ago, and also Charles A. Lindbergh, Thomas A. Edison, Robert Frost and Gen. Colin Powell. The youngest recipient was 11-year-old Roland Boucher of Vermont in 1941, it states on the United States House of Representatives’ “History, Art & Archives” website. Roland rescued five of his playmates who had fallen through the ice of Lake Champlain while ice skating, four of whom survived.
Lang read the “Attention to Orders” before he presented Straka the gold medal, stating it stands for his intrepidity and indomitable courage against a brutal enemy in defense of the Philippines and the United States from Dec. 8, 1941 to Dec. 31, 1946.
Commissioner Larry Herke of the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs presented Straka with the Minnesota World War II Memorial Medallion.
“You gave it your all,” Herke said to Straka. “We appreciate the efforts of everything that you've done and everything you've done since coming back home. You’ve been a great father, a great member of your community.”
Herke then made an announcement that Gov. Tim Walz proclaimed Oct. 14 as Walter Straka Day. The proclamation details Straka’s service in World War II.
The proclamation stated Straka “dealt bravely with the nightmares of his experience, raised a family of seven, and has succeeded in life through hard work and determination. Walter is an exemplary citizen, an American role model.”
Commander, First Battalion, 194th Armor of Brainerd, Lt. Col. Jacob Helgestad presented Straka with a book titled “Thunder on Bataan,” by Don Caldwell. Caldwell interviewed Straka about his experiences as part of his research for the book.
Due to COVID-19 restrictions, Straka was unable to embrace his family or socialize with any of the guests. Paul Straka said when he first told his father about the Congressional Gold Medal, the first thing he said was “Is it real gold?”
“This is a guy who came through the Depression,” Paul Straka said. “He is so proud and very humble.”
The siblings said growing up they never really knew what their father went through during the war, as he never talked about it. However, later in life, Walter Straka began to open up more and that is when they learned about his experience.
“The more you talk to him the more you learn and he just remembers things that are just incredible,” Paul Straka said. “He’s been through a lot. He was in Nagasaki two days after the bomb was dropped and then in Japan. ... I am at a loss for words."