Benjamin Steele

Born: Roundup, Montana (1917)

- US Army Air Corp

- Bataan Death March, O'Donnell POW camp,
Tayabasu detail, Bilibid Prison, Canadian Inventor.
Omine Machi camp

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Mr. Benjamin Steele is a survivor of the Bataan Death March, O’Donnell POW camp, the Tayabasu detail from which only 50 out of 325 POWs came back alive, the 62 day-long Hellship voyage to Japan, and nearly a year of forced labor in a Japanese coalmine.

But he is most famous for his drawings and paintings depicting his experiences as a POW of the Japanese.

Mr. Steele began to draw in Bilibid Prison, but all but two original drawings were lost. He would recreate many of those drawings after he was liberated and came back home. Eventually, his artwork would "comprise one of the most  comprehensive and expressively powerful visual records of the prisoner-of-war experience under the Japanese. "                                                                                                                              Japanese identification card

He enrolled in and graduated from the Cleveland Institute of Art and later attended Kent State University to complete his teaching credentials. In 1955 he earned a Masters Degree in Art from the University of Denver. He taught at Eastern Montana College for many years and is now Professor of Art Emeritus of the same school.

During the recent ADBC convention in
Washington DC, Mr. Steele spoke with Miss Jessica Goad, the winner of 2007 Essay Contest, (see video clip) and US-Japan dialogue on POWs' Kinue Tokudome and Yuka Ibuki. 

Your original drawings did not survive. What happened to them?

My drawings I made during the war were all lost on one of the ships transporting POWs to Japan from the Philippines. I left them with an officer friend and he was on a Japanese ship which was sunk by American Forces.

What did drawing mean to you as a POW?

Art was very helpful for me as it took my mind off my problems. Art is great therapy.

Did expressing yourself and your POW experience in the form of art help you overcome any negative feeling you had towards the Japanese people?

I used to have a negative feeling toward the Japanese guards who were not good to us but I have overcome all that and have forgiven them all. I had Japanese students when I was a professor of art here at Montana State University. They were very helpful for me and now I have several Japanese artist friends and others. They come out to my house and we have great times together.

Do you think that your art work has a message that can be understood by today’s Japanese people?

My drawings are very strong but true and I hope the Japanese will understand that they are the products of war which is brutal in all aspects. War is hell and it is hard to understand why it happens. 

Edited by Alan Newberg

Captioned by Shirley Steele with Benjamin Steele

Copyright:  Department of Art,  Eastern Montana College (1986)

"The Water Line"

At Camp O'Donnell one water spigot serves the entire camp. POWs who are able carry water to sick comrades who cannot get their own. Well soldiers string canteens together on a stick or hollow out bamboo by poking through the connecting membranes to make water carriers. Soldiers stand in the waterline all day and half the night, waiting their turns. Many collapse and die before getting a drink.  

"The Stragglers"

Men unable to continue the march are killed by Japanese guards.
Fellow prisoners dare not intervene.


"Quan and Quaning"

As the prisoners understand it, the word "quan" means anything edible in the Philippine language. Eventually all prisoners obtain or make a can in which to collect and cook edible items (weeds, insects, snakes, etc.). The container becomes their "quan can," a very valuable possession.


"Working Topside"

Topside work at a Japanese coal mine is strenuous. The Japanese cut into a mountainside to make roadbeds for tracks. Prisoners load large rocks onto flatcars and then roll the cars to a fill and dump them. (This is the second of the two surviving original drawings.)