Benjamin Charles Steele
BenSteele's Presentation at ADBC Museum 2012
Ben Steele, seated, at the 2007 Convention in Washington, D.C.
Benjamin Charles Steele was born on November 17, 1917 in Roundup, Montana to Benjamin and Elizabeth "Bess" Steele. He grew up on a ranch in the Bull Mountains, and his love of homestead life and animals, particularly horses, later inspired the art that would see him through the dark war experiences to come. In 1932, the Steeles moved to Billings, Montana, and sixteen-year-old Ben quit high school to take a job as a ranch hand and help support his family. He returned to finish high school in 1939, graduating at the age of 22.
Ben's mother advised him to join the Army in 1940 before the mandatory draft so that he could choose in what capacity he would like to serve, and so he joined the U.S. Army Air Corps at Fort Missoula, Montana that September. Initially, he enjoyed his life as a soldier, and he completed basic training at March Field, California. He was then assigned to Albuquerque, New Mexico and the 7th Material Squadron, 19th Bomb Group as an aircraft dispatcher.
A year later, in September 1941, he was stationed at Clark Field in the Philippines. On December 8, the men received word that Pearl Harbor had been attacked; shortly afterward, Clark Field was bombed. On December 25, they were ordered to infantry duty on Bataan, where, with little food and almost no available medicine, they were on the front lines in the fight against the Japanese. When Bataan surrendered on April 9, 1942, Steele was captured by the Japanese at Cabcaben and forced to make the infamous Bataan Death March, which lasted for six days before the exhausted men were loaded into box cars in San Fernando and taken the rest of the way to Camp O'Donnell.
On June 1, Ben volunteered to join a group of 325 men selected for the Tayabas Road Detail, which was so grueling that only 50 men--including Ben--survived. Because he was so ill with dysentery, malaria, pneumonia, beriberi, and septicemia, Steele was interned at Bilibid Prison on August 15, and it was there that he began to draw, chronicling the POW experience first in the dirt with charcoal and then on Japanese form sheets.
He was interned at Cabanatuan from January to July 1944 and was then returned to Bilibid Prison and put on board the freighter Canadian Inventor, which the prisoners called Mati Mati Maru. Ben landed in Moji, Japan on September 2 and arrived to work at the coal mine (Omine Machi) the next day. When the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, he was close enough to hear it. Nearly a year later, on August 15, work at the mine was discontinued and the prisoners met the U.S. Occupation Troops at Wakayama.
Leaving Wakayama on the hospital ship USS Constellation, Ben was flown to San Francisco by the 19th Bombardment Group C54 and assigned to Fort George Wright Hospital in Spokane, Washington, where he remained until he was discharged on July 10, 1946.
In 1950, Ben graduated from the Cleveland Institute of Art. He earned a Bachelor of Science in Education degree from Kent State University two years later and a Master of the Arts degree from Denver University in 1955. He also performed further graduate study at the University of Oregon, Illinois State University, and Montana State University. He served as post crafts director for the Department of Army at Fort Riley, Kansas in 1953 and as staff crafts director for the 3rd U.S. Army in 1956. Then, in September 1959, he commenced teaching in the art department of Eastern Montana College, acting as director and head of the art department until June 1982. He retired as Professor of Art Emeritus.
The Ben Steele Prisoner of War Collection resides in the permanent collection at Eastern Montana College, and through November 19, 2011, the Montana Museum of Art and Culture is hosting "War Torn: The Art of Ben Steele," a special exhibit featuring oil paintings and drawings donated by Ben and his wife Shirley in 2010.
The Philippine Defenders banner entitled "Captivity 1942," located at the top left, was done by Ben Steele.