Walt Straka, 98, is the only surviving member of the 194th Tank Battalion in Brainerd, Minn., which was ordered to the Philippines in September 1941, a few months before Pearl Harbor. It was the first tank unit in the Far East.
When the war broke out, many were killed in the Philippines, or on the forced march as POWs after Bataan fell. Up to 20,000 soldiers are believed to have died on the march.
Sixty-four men left Brainerd. Three were killed in action, 29 died on the march or as POWs. Twenty-nine survived. Only Walt is left.
Every year, the National Guard reads their names, as it did on Saturday.
It got to Straka, the Brainerd Dispatch says.
“I wake up in the morning—I can’t believe I’m still here,” Straka said. “When they read those names off and they are all gone. That’s the thing that really got me.”
Straka was a prisoner of war for 43 months. He said his Catholic faith helped him. He used his fingers to keep track as he’d pray the rosary.
“If you couldn’t pray on that march you were through,” he said.
When he got home, the families of the men who were lost wanted to find out what happened, including the father of his best friend, Byron Veillette, who was killed in action. Straka said he couldn’t tell them those terrible details.
“It was really a hard time for a few years,” he said.
Straka said he thinks often of Veillette, a good athlete and the family’s only son.
“A good kid,” Straka said of Veillette. “You couldn’t meet a nicer guy.”
Straka credits his late wife Cleta as the reason he was able to keep going after the war. The couple raised seven children. Straka still marvels at his health. When he cracked a hip a decade a go, he said the doctor told him he had tough bones.
Before he went to war, he wanted to be a lawyer. But he said when he got home, his nerves were shot. He sold cars instead.
After the ceremony, members of the Guard marched in full gear in honor of those who went to Bataan.