The Bataan Death March will live forever in the archives of the Montana Museum of Art and Culture. This week, the University of Montana-based museum announced that it has acquired 11 oil paintings and 78 drawings by noted artist and Roundup native Ben Steele.
The famed collection of works, some of which were featured in the best-selling book "Tears in the Darkness," chronicle Steele's memories from the three and a half years he spent as a prisoner of war in Japan, following the U.S. military's defeat at Bataan.
"These are such an important acquisition from both a historical and artistic standpoint, because (Steele) was able to convey this incredible emotional impact in these pieces," said Brandon Reintjes, curator at the MMAC. "I'm really impressed that he had the vision and determination to pursue this work in his own aesthetic, in light of all the developments happening around him at that time."
Indeed, the mere existence of Steele's paintings and drawings is something of a miracle. After entering the U.S. Army Air Corps at age 22, Steele found himself caught up in one of the first and most protracted land battles of the war in the Pacific, as U.S. and Filipino forces attempted to defend the peninsula of Bataan in the Philippines.
The 99-day battle ended with the surrender of 76,000 troops, including Steele. It was one of the worst defeats in American military history.
Steele survived the legendary Death March, and ultimately spent three and a half years as a prisoner of war in the Philippines and Japan. Crippled by a combination of dysentery, pneumonia, malaria, blood poisoning and Beriberi, Steele came so close to death that he was read his last rites by priests on two occasions.
To maintain his sanity, Steele began drawing - first employing nothing but a charred cook-fire stick on the bare concrete floor; and later on paper that fellow prisoners supplied him.
In 1945, Steele was liberated. His drawings were smuggled out of the prison camps, but unfortunately were lost.
So, during his yearlong recuperation at a hospital in a Spokane, Steele re-created the lost drawings and several paintings. Those works comprise the collection that Steele, now 92, gifted to the Montana Museum of Art and Culture this year.
Following his recovery, Steele pursued a degree at the Cleveland Institute of Art, where he studied with noted artists George Grosz, Hans Mueller and Clarence Van Duzer. After receiving teaching credentials from Kent State University and a master of art degree from the University of Denver in 1955, Steele became a professor of art at Montana State University-Billings.
"His work has this incredible narrative impulse," said Reintjes. "In these works, he does what all great artwork aspires to, which is to communicate instantaneously with strong emotion."
The MMAC officially took possession of the collection in July of this year. Since then, most of the paintings have been treated by a conservator, in preparation for a planned exhibition in the autumn of 2011.
Reintjes said that exhibition, which will be presented on the UM campus in coordination with other events and programs at the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula, will both introduce this region's audiences to Steele's formative works, as well as offer an opportunity to address the history - and lessons - from that pivotal period in American history.
"There's a strong wish on the part of Ben and the museum that that exhibit serve as an educational component to teach about not just war, but about peace," said Reintjes. "There's a great confluence of events building around that exhibit, so I think it will be a very exciting thing to put together."