Art of War: Back to Bataan

Photo credit: Tom Schaad/WAVY-TV

NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) — The real experience of brutality has been distilled to black lines on the pages of 41 sketchbooks in the annals of the MacArthur Memorial in downtown Norfolk. They are fragmented sketches that detail the horrors of war.

Ben Steele talked about his time as a prisoner of war through his pen. The famous painter from Montana was known for works depicting detailed scenes of the American West, but he was also haunted by deep, dark images from his time as a private in the Army Air Corps 75 years ago.

“I think it’s the art itself that makes it so strong of an impact, because you don’t see stuff like this.”

Photos: The Art of War

Jim Zobel, the archivist from the MacArthur Memorial, showed 10 On Your Side’s Tom Schaad a treasure trove of 41 sketchbooks by Steele. He was one of 75,000 men — Americans and Filipinos — who marched 60 miles after they surrendered to Japanese forces at Bataan in 1942. It was the infamous Bataan Death March.

“These visions of the camps, these visions of the hell ships, these visions of the Death March. It’s not drawing from imagining. It’s drawing from remembering.”

They are dark memories. The sketches show jagged, harsh lines which become sharp images of torture and death.

The inked images go from of coyotes to Japanese soldiers, as if the flashbacks of war took over Steele’s memory on many of the pages. He kept these books from 1949 to just before he died in September. The images have a stark quality of the brutality endured by POWs. More than 600 Americans, and thousands of Filipino soldiers, died on the way to prison camps in the Phillipines.

Steele, who passed away in September at the age of 98, is the center of a soon-to-be released documentary “Survival Through Art,” where he offered this reason for viewing his sketches.

“I lived through it, so you should be able to look at all the pictures.”

The exhibit opens Sunday April 9 at the MacArthur Memorial. To get more event details and register, click here