By Luis Carlos Lopez
El Paso Times
Harry Edward Steen Sr., one of El Paso’s last remaining survivors of the Bataan Death March in World War II, was remembered April 21 for his tenacity and his attitude to keep going, no matter what the circumstances. Steen, who spent more than three years in Japanese prison camps, died in his sleep the morning of April 18 at his East El Paso home. He was 97.
“He was a very outspoken fellow, very outspoken, very outgoing, you always knew where he stood on things,” said his friend, retired Army Col. Gerald Schurtz.
Schurtz’s father and uncle were both captured on the Bataan Peninsula in the Philippines with Steen and 1,800 other New Mexico National Guard members in April 1942, during the opening days of World War II.
Thousands of U.S. and Filipino prisoners were murdered and abused in the days after their surrender in an atrocity known as the Bataan Death March. Many of those who survived died in the years of brutal captivity that followed. Only 900 of the 1,800 New Mexico guardsmen who were captured in 1942 were still alive at war’s end in 1945.
“We went through so goddamn much hell, people wouldn’t believe it,” Steen told the El Paso Times in a 1992 story marking the 50th anniversary of the Bataan Death March.
Schurtz estimates about 25 of the 1,800 New Mexico National Guard Soldiers who were captured are still alive, most living in Northern New Mexico. Many of the Bataan survivors, who had been trained at Fort Bliss, settled in El Paso after the war.
Funeral services for Steen were held on April 22 at Sunset Funeral Home East. Steen was buried at Fort Bliss National Cemetery with full military honors. Steen was honored with a moment of silence before the April 21 El Paso Chihuahuas baseball game, with many of his family members in attendance.
“He spent 3½ years in a Japanese prison camp and 58 years with me. He was a tough old bird,” said Mary Lou Steen, his widow.
As a captive of the Japanese, Steen was tortured and lived off a rice ball a day and whatever he could get his hands on, his wife said. She said her husband weighed about 175 pounds before he was captured and less than 80 pounds when he was liberated in 1945.
“He fought till the end,” she said. “His attitude was, ‘These bastards are not going to get me.’ ”
Harry and Mary Lou Steen were married in 1958. They moved to El Paso in the early 1970s. He worked for the Spitzer Co. until 1980, and after retiring, spent his time golfing and bowling. The Steens had five children, 12 grandchildren and 13 great grandchildren. Steen will be remembered for everything he did for his children and others, she said.
His son, Harry Edward Steen Jr., said: “He was very stern. He wanted his children to be seen and to be heard. He was a great provider. He always looked out for family and friends.”
Mary Lou Steen added, “They all loved Dad. Dad was a good guy.”
WSMR Commander Brig. Gen. Timothy Coffin said, “We mourn with those who knew Harry and what a tremendous example of tenacity he was in the face of tragedy. In honor of his memory — and the memories of all Bataan victims and survivors — each of us must recommit to never forget what these Soldiers endured at Bataan. It is essential that we remember these lessons in history to ensure that such atrocities never happen again.”