Life Remembered: Bilek rose above wartime experiences
As a kid from the concrete streets of Chicago, Tony Bilek knew nothing about horticulture.
Sure, he recognized the endless fields of corn planted between his native city and Rantoul, where he was stationed at Chanute Field, but he gave little thought to plant life.
The first time he stuck a plant in the ground was in a Japanese prison camp during World War II. Quite an irony that he would become known for his green thumb as he and his wife, Millie, would build 12 greenhouses in the Indian Hills subdivision of Rantoul and operate two retail outlets.
Ironic that his teacher was the group that also brought him the most pain — the Japanese Imperial Army.
Mr. Bilek, who would tell about his involvement in the barbarous Bataan Death March and existence in several prison camps during the war in his book, "No Uncle Sam — The Forgotten of Bataan," died Jan. 13. He was 94.
Mr. Bilek saw more history and heartache than most people experience in 10 lifetimes. He also didn't let it destroy his life.
The Japanese attack on Clark Field in the Philippines. The Death March. Slave labor. The B-29 bombing flights into Japan. The revelation that his sweetheart of 10 years, whose letter kept him going, had married another. And firsthand, the atom bomb that fell on Nagasaki.
Mr. Bilek's first planting project was a small plot of beans that he and fellow POWs grew for food at Camp Cabanatuan in the Philippines. Never mind that they never got to harvest the beans because a building was moved on top of the plot. It sparked a realization that there was a latent green thumb blooming in the young man.
Bilek could never be grateful for the opportunity the Japanese gave him. He worked as a slave laborer growing produce on a farm at the POW camp and toiled in a coal mine in Japan.
Bilek was part of the brutal Bataan Death March in which the Japanese marched American and Filipino POWs 55 miles in five days. Of the 76,000 troops who started the trip, from 10,000 to 20,000 (no one knows for sure the exact number) died. Many were shot, decapitated, bayonated and some even run over by trucks as they fell by the road.
"I think dad was probably one of the longest-living residents of Rantoul," said his daughter, Karen McCartney of Rantoul, who took care of him in his later years. "He had to have been. Dad came here in 1937, and he never left."
Never left until he was sent overseas.
He was 22 when captured by the Japanese. Ten years earlier he met a girl named Marie. They dated and planned to marry. Her final letter to him, which she sent before the war, kept him alive as he unfolded and read it so many times that it was about to fall apart.
After working a year in Chicago following his high school graduation, he joined the Army Air Corps and was stationed at Chanute Field.
He joined, his daughter said, "because he wanted an education. He wanted to be an airplane pilot, but he was color blind."
Odd that a man who couldn't tell one color from another would later become a superb botanist.
"He had trouble distinguishing between the leaves and the flowers in the poinsettias," said McCartney, who lives with her husband, Danny, on the same site where her parents had their home.
"He could get flowers to grow in concrete," she said. "The only training he had in flower raising was working in the gardens for the Japanese."
Mr. Bilek frequently spoke in area schools about his experiences as a prisoner of war. For years people urged him to write a book. It took him 26 years to do so, but when he took it to publishers, they said the book needed to be about him, not about all the men with whom he served.
So, with help from author Gene O'Connell, Bilek wrote his autobiography, which was published in 2003 by Kent State University Press.
Bilek wrote that there was extreme resentment by the troops against the U.S. government for not sending in troops to rescue the besieged men, both U.S. and Filipino, after the Japanese attacked. But the U.S. Navy was in shambles after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and reinforcements could not be sent in time.
McCartney said despite Mr. Bilek dedicating the book to his wife, she would never read the book. McCartney didn't make it very far in the book.
When she and her father were heading out on a vacation trip, she started to read it but had to put it down. She couldn't bear to read what her father had experienced.
McCartney, who has a room in her home dedicated to her father, said maybe now she will be able to read it.
Bob Helbling of Fisher, himself a veteran, got to know Mr. Bilek when both worked at Chanute.
"He was telling me about the Death March," Helbling said. "As they were walking down this particular road, if something irritated the Japanese about a certain individual, they would just chop their head off and throw them off to the side."
He also spoke of the terrible conditions in the prison camps, Helbling said. Men died from dysentery, malnutrition, starvation and disease.
Mr. Bilek came down with malaria. Twice he had beriberi, which caused his body to swell up to twice its normal size.
He was among those who volunteered to go to Japan to work in mid-1944, to escape the drudgery and squalor of their prison camp. They were told the conditions and the food would be much better. They lied.
They made the trip on one of several "hell ships." Conditions in the ship were brutal as the POWs were placed in holds below with poor sanitation, no ventilation and scant food. And the ships were not marked as carrying POWs. Allied attacks killed many of the prisoners. More than 1,400 died en route to Japan.
Things didn't get any better when they made it to Japan. They were forced to work as slave laborers in Japanese coal mines.
"When they forced them to work in the coal mines it was so hot they would just wear a wrap around their lower body," Helbling said. "It was so bad that the fellas tried everything they could to pick up a scent from above ground."
But they began to notice the frequent B-29 bomber attacks on Japan, forcing them to take cover. One day they heard a tremendous explosion. They looked over toward Nagasaki and saw an unusual cloud.
"Must have hit an ammo dump or something," they thought.
Only later they were told it was one of the atom bombs.
Their response: "What's an atom bomb?"
After the war, Mr. Bilek, who was a sheet metal worker and repaired planes prior to being captured, worked with Helbling and Richard Clark, among others, on several aircraft replicas for the Chanute Air Museum, soon after it opened, including The Spirit of St. Louis, a Curtiss Jenny and a World War I German fighter engine, according to Mark Hanson, air museum curator.
His daughter said she didn't see much of her father when she was growing up. (She would be his shadow when he was home.) She thinks the need to stay busy was due to the inner conflict he felt from the abuse he suffered at the hands of the Japanese.
In addition to operating the greenhouses after his service spent at Chanute, Mr. Bilek built six houses in town.
"My father was always working," McCartney said. "I think that was his therapy.
"He ... instilled in us kids to always make a plan. He built such beautiful furniture for me at home. He built cabinets, big flower boxes, dividers. He was always building.
"He needed peace. He was fighting a war he couldn't win."
About five years ago, he had to quit working in his woodworking shop due to poor health.
After he returned stateside, Mr. Bilek was a project planner in training aids at Chanute, according to Helbling.
Another friend, Chuck Padilla of Rantoul, grew close to Mr. Bilek when they discovered they had grown up less than a mile apart in Chicago.
"It was only after he returned from the Death March that we got to know each other real well," Padilla said. "We seemed to think the same way. We all looked forward to every day and taking a positive attitude. He was that type of man to be able to survive the Bataan Death March."
Padilla would often come to visit his friend at his home. They would reminisce about times spent together and about growing up in Chicago.
"We took a couple of trips up there," Padilla said. "We would talk about things he would do as a kid. There was a bar around the corner, where he would tap dance (as a child) and get a few pennies here and there."
Padilla said when he did landscaping work, he would get all of his plants from Mr. Bilek.
The whole greenhouse business began when he wanted to raise chickens, but his wife didn't want him to, so she suggested raising something else, McCartney said.
"My mom said, 'I'm not going to have chickens running around my yard. How about flowers?'" McCartney said.
Instead, he started raising tomatoes and gave them to friends. They suggested he start raising the plants and sell them.
It was 1958. That business bloomed until the Bileks had 12 greenhouses, a store downtown and one in east Rantoul. It remained open until July 2000 — two days before Millie Bilek died.
"Everybody knew Bileks' greenhouse in Rantoul," McCartney said. "Everybody knew his beautiful red geraniums. That was his specialty."
Kaye Heath, secretary/treasurer of the Rantoul Historical Society, said Bilek not only sold plants, he offered advice.
"If you wanted to plant anything in your yard, he would tell you what would be best," Heath said. "(Also), every year that's where everybody went for their wreaths and their Christmas stuff."
She also remembers him from an annual ceremony at Chanute for survivors of the Death March. The Rantoul area was home to several men who had been in the march.
She said Mr. Bilek also did a lot for the historical museum.
"We considered him an honorary member," Heath said. "He was really a nice gentleman."