It seems fitting that Walter Straka died on July 4th.
Straka, a member of the Greatest Generation, was Minnesota's last remaining survivor of the Bataan Death March, a horrific chapter of World War II. The Congressional Gold Medal recipient, 101, died on Independence Day at the St. Cloud VA Medical Center.
Born Oct. 23, 1919, in Brainerd, Straka was one of 64 Minnesota National Guard troops from his hometown who belonged to Company A of the U.S. Army's 194th Tank Battalion. They were sent to the Philippines in September 1941 near Clark Field on the island of Luzon, just months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
After months of fighting under desperate conditions, Bataan fell on April 9, 1942. Some 75,000 Filipino and American soldiers, including Straka, were forced by the Japanese to walk 65 miles in six days to prison camps.
The grueling trek through the jungle, marked by physical abuse and torture, was later memorialized as the Bataan Death March. Thousands of the prisoners died.
In a 2020 interview with the Star Tribune, Straka recalled a Japanese soldier ramming his spine with a rifle butt, temporarily paralyzing him. His comrades from Brainerd picked him up and they marched on.
If he hadn't continued, he said, "They would have bayoneted me for sure. Men were going insane, starving, dropping like flies. Hell couldn't be worse."
Between the American surrender at Bataan and the war's end in 1945, Straka survived starvation, abusive guards and cerebral malaria at a forced-labor steel mill.
"I could have died so many times, so I'm not worried about dying," Straka told the Star Tribune. "I'm a pretty lucky guy in many ways."
Paul Straka of Baxter, Minn., said his father recalled working a burial detail in Nagasaki, Japan, just days after the atomic bomb was dropped.
"How many people alive can say that?" his son said. "It's amazing he survived."
Only half of the 64 men from Brainerd serving with the 194th in the Philippines survived the march and subsequent captivity. The once-strapping 6-foot-2, 200-pound Straka weighed just 89 pounds at war's end.
When he returned home to Brainerd, he married Cleta Sylvester and raised a family. He and Cleta marked 64 years of marriage before she died in 2009.
Straka opened a used-car business, East Side Auto, in Brainerd. After he retired at 56, the couple bought a motor home and traveled all over the country, settling in Pharr, Texas, in winter while spending summers in Minnesota.
"He loved playing cards, sitting in a hot tub and going out to eat," Paul Straka said. "He enjoyed life."
Straka was spry well into his 90s, shoveling his walks and meeting friends for breakfast every day in the McDonald's at the local Walmart.
Though Straka rarely spoke of his wartime experiences, he started to open up about them in his 80s, his son said. He faithfully attended veterans' events and reunions, and was awarded the Minnesota World War II Memorial Medallion for "his intrepidity and indomitable courage against a brutal enemy."
In addition to his son Paul, Straka is survived by daughters Marsha Kate Haaf, of Webster, Wis.; Elizabeth Miles, of Hackensack, Minn.; and Sarah Porter, of Princeton, Minn.; sons Greg, of Brainerd, and Peter, of St. Joseph, Minn.; brother, Jim, of South Carolina; sister, Helen Hansen, of California; and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Along with his wife, Straka was preceded in death by another daughter, Jane. Services have been held.