Billings Gazette: 'American hero, state treasure' Ben Steele has died at 98

Bataan Death March survivor, artist and educator Ben Steele will be remembered for his heroism and his warm, caring personality.

He died Sunday at age 98 with his wife Shirley and daughters Julie Jorgenson and Rosemarie Steele at his side. A memorial service is pending.

“Everyone knows his war stories and what he went through as a POW, but it’s his personality, his warm caring personality that made people love him,” Jorgenson said. “His students would come up to me and say, ‘Ben and I have a special bond.’ But he made everyone feel special; every student had that special bond with him.”

A documentary film, “Survival Through Art,” has just been completed by filmmaker Jan Thompson. A private screening is set for November, but Jorgenson said there will be other upcoming opportunities to see it.

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

“Dad used to deliver art supplies to Will James, who was a loner, but he liked Dad. 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. His powerful drawings of his time in captivity are housed at the University of Montana in Missoula.

In 2015, when School District 2 was naming a new middle school on Grand Avenue and 56th Street West, Shannon Burns Johnson pushed to have it named for Steele. She rallied the community, obtaining 2,000 signatures in a matter of days to get Steele’s name on the list.

“When I went to tell Ben about the idea, he just stared at me for a minute, then he got this huge grin on his face and said, ‘Ben Steele Middle School – that would be a great name,'” Johnson said.

Ground was broken on the middle school in March, and Jorgenson said her father considered having his name on the school one of his highest honors.

U.S. Senator Steve Daines, who met Steele on the Big Sky Honor Flight in 2013, issued a statement Sunday about Steele’s heroism.

“Montana has lost an American hero and a state treasure,” Daines said. “Ben Steele will be remembered for his service, his courage and his artistic legacy.”

Steele was a U.S. Army Air Corps private in the Philippines when the Japanese attacked and captured his unit. At least 7,000 soldiers died during a 66-mile march under a hot tropical sun—a march so horrific that the Japanese commander was later executed for war crimes.

Steele was bayoneted, starved and beaten. He suffered dysentery, malaria, pneumonia, beriberi and septicemia. He gained the emotional strength to stay alive in part by sketching pictures. His heroic journey is told in the 2009 New York Times bestseller “Tears in the Darkness” by Michael and Elizabeth Norman.

After the war, Steele pursued college and graduate degrees in art and returned to Billings to teach at Eastern Montana College and Montana State University Billings.

Steele met Harry Koyama, a student of Japanese heritage, in his art class in the 1960s. Steele said he learned to forgive his Japanese captors because of his relationship with Koyama, which Steele talked about in “Tears in the Darkness.”

“He’s been a part of my life since I met him in college in the 1960s,” Koyama said. “That’s even more of a humbling experience to know that I had not just an effect, but a positive effect on his life. Ben was just a great person and an excellent art teacher. I still use some of the techniques he taught me.”

Another former student, Jacque Kittson, said Steele was actively painting and drawing up until the final week of his life. A show featuring some of his new works and those of his friends will be on display Oct. 8 at the Carbon County Arts Guild in Red Lodge.

“I was so blessed to have him as my teacher, friend, mentor and second father,” Kittson said.

By:  Jaci Webb
Source: Billings Gazette