Minnesota has lost its last living witness to one of the most infamous events of World War II's Pacific Theater.
Walter Straka, a lifelong Brainerd resident who was one of many war prisoners on the Bataan Death March in the Philippines, died Sunday, July 4, at the age of 101.
His death was announced in a Facebook post by 1st Combined Arms Battalion, 194th Armor, the National Guard unit in which Straka served:
"Mr. Straka was an extraordinary man who by his own account 'should have been dead a thousand times,'" the post says.
It also notes that, after the war, Straka "resided peacefully in Brainerd where he ran a successful business and raised a family," and was a fixture at commemorative ceremonies honoring his fellow soldiers.
Last October, he was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal and the Minnesota World War II Memorial Medallion for his service, thanks in part to the efforts of the Filipino Veteran Recognition and Education Project, Freedom Flight and the 194th Tank Regiment, Brainerd Dispatch reported.
Gov. Tim Walz also proclaimed Oct. 14 as Walter Straka Day, the paper noted.
Like his fellow Bataan Death March prisoners, Straka endured unspeakable abuse at the hands of the Imperial Japanese Army, some of which he detailed in an interview with the Star Tribune last year.
The march started on April 9, 1942, after the U.S. surrendered the Bataan Peninsula in the Philippines to the Japanese, who then forced about 75,000 Filipino and American troops on a 65-mile walk to prisoner-of-war camps.
"The marchers made the trek in intense heat and were subjected to harsh treatment by Japanese guards," with thousands perishing along the way, History.com writes.
After the war, the commander of the Japanese invasion forces in the Philippines, Lieutenant General Homma Masaharu, was tried for his role in the Bataan Death March and ultimately executed by firing squad on April 3, 1946.
You can watch another American veteran describe the hellish conditions of the march in the video below: