Ben Steele, Bataan Death March survivor and artist, dies age 98

Ben Steele


BILLINGS, Montana - Ben Steele, the Montana ranch hand turned Bataan Death March survivor turned artist and art teacher, was called an “American hero” after passing away at age 98 in his home state on Sunday.

One of his daughters, Julie Jorgenson, told The Billings Gazette​ he passed away peacefully with his wife Shirley and two daughters at his side.

CBS Billings affiliate KTVQ-TV reports​ that Steele -- who was a POW for 1,244 days -- was honored as the Montanan of the week last year by Sen. Steve Daines, who himself took to Twitter on Sunday to pay homage to the “American hero.”

Steele’s journey was chronicled in the 2009 book “Tears in the Darkness​,” which paints a picture of him as “a figure out of Hemingway: a young cowboy turned sketch artist from Montana who joined the army to see the world.”

Steele was born on Nov. 17, 1917, in Roundup, Montana, on his parents’ ranch, and grew up riding horses and roping cattle in the Bull Mountains. One of his biggest and earliest influences was the cowboy artist Will James, Jorgenson told the Billings Gazette.


A drawing of the Bataan Death March, by Montana artist Ben Steele


“Dad used to deliver art supplies to Will James, who was a loner, but he liked dad,” Jorgenson said. “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.”

Steele later used his skill at drawing to keep his sanity when he was a prisoner of war. 

KTVQ reports tough economic times forced Steele to join the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1940, and by 1941 he was a prisoner of the Japanese.

After being captured by the Japanese and surviving the 66-mile “Death March” in the Philippines, Steele was packed away on an infamous Japanese “Hell Ship,”​ which he also barely survived, before ending up in a forced labor camp in Japan. 

In 2015, a middle school in Billings was named after him. The Billings Gazette reports​ a documentary about Steele and his acclaimed artwork called “Survival Through Art,” is expected to be released soon. His drawings of his time in captivity are housed at the University of Montana in Missoula​.

In describing Steele’s ordeal, the University of Montana writes: “Captured just months after arriving in the Philippines, Ben was tortured, starved, and pierced with a bayonet during the ensuing forty-one months. Calling on his Montana memories and years of hard physical labor, Ben somehow stayed alive long after thousands of other prisoners had died or were killed literally at his feet.

“Hospitalized in late 1942 from a near-lethal combination of beriberi, dysentery, jaundice, and malaria, Ben began sketching on the concrete hospital floor with a piece of charcoal from the nearby stove. His first drawings of horses, cowboy hats, and corrals helped restore his strength and brought his unknown art talents to the attention of others in the compound. On smuggled paper and at the urging of other prisoners, Ben began drawing scenes from the death march and camp life—images that would find their way in the years to come into a collection that has toured the nation and now resides permanently at UM.”