June 23, 2009
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. - Retired Major Bert Bank, one of the state's most prominent figures as a radio pioneer, state senator and civic leader, died Monday night in Tuscaloosa. He was 94.
Bank was a survivor of the Bataan Death March and 33 months captivity in a Japanese Prison Camp in the Philippines in 1942-45 during World War II.
"Bert Bank was a great American war hero, a dedicated servant to his country and state, and a loyal fan and friend of the University of Alabama," Alabama Director of Athletics Mal Moore said. "Few individuals have had the impact on the University like Bert. He knew every football coach, dating back to Wallace Wade, on a first name basis. He saw the first game ever played in Denny Stadium.
"His heroism during the Bataan Death March has been documented in books and movies. Not only has this country, state and University lost a magnificent leader but I've personally lost a close friend. My thoughts are with the entire Bank family during their time of mourning and I want to thank them for letting them share Bert with us for so many years."
Bank received his undergraduate degree from the University of Alabama and is also a graduate of the UA Law School. He received his commission as a Second Lieutenant through the ROTC program and was assigned to the 27th Bomb Group, arriving in the Philippines on November 20, 1941.
Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, his unit was moved to the Bataan Peninsula on December 24, 1941. After months of intense fighting, Bataan surrendered on April 9, 1942, and shortly thereafter the infamous Death March began during which approximately 20,000 prisoners died.
Bank was held in several locations including the Cabanatuan Prisoner of War Camp in which 2,656 Americans died. It was from that camp that he and 512 other prisoners were liberated by the 6th Ranger Battalion on January 30, 1945.
Bank received the Purple Heart and Bronze Star for his actions in World World II, and spending two years at Valley Forge (Pa.) General Hospital, Bank retired from the Air Force with a rank of Major and returned to Tuscaloosa.
"I bear no bitterness or rancor," Bank said. "It was a different time and the world has changed. I hope there will come a day when all the people in the world will live in peace and happiness."
His book, "Back From the Living Dead", recounts his experiences as a prisoner of war.
Bank was one of the subjects of the best seller, "Ghost Soldiers", by Hampton Sides that detailed the rescue of the prison camp by U. S. Rangers on January 30, 1945.
In 2003, Bank received the National Veterans Award. The National Veterans Award each year honors a veteran who has made the greatest contribution to further the patriotic interest of veterans and veterans' organizations throughout the country.
Some of the previous award winners include General Omar Bradley, Lt. General James Doolittle, Charles A. Lindberg, astronaut Neil Armstrong, former Alabama Governor John Patterson, Senator Barry Goldwater and Senator Howell Heflin.
He entered the radio business, starting Tuscaloosa's second station (WTBC) and later added the area's first FM station (WUOA). He started the Alabama Football Radio Network in 1953 and handled the network well into the 1980's.
Although he sold the radio station in 1984, Bank still served as producer emeritus of Crimson Tide Sports Network.
Bank was a classmate of Paul W. (Bear) Bryant for one term at Tuscaloosa High School and during their college careers at Alabama. They were reunited when Bryant returned as coach of the Crimson Tide in 1958.
"How many stations do you have on the network?" Bryant asked Bank.
"Seven," Bank replied.
"Seven?" Bryant repeated in disbelief.
"You've got to win if you are going to get stations," Bank said.
"Well," Bryant replied. "You better crank it up because we are going to win."
Bank grew the network which today exceeds 60 stations throughout Alabama and the South.
Bank's stations served as a training ground for many youngsters who later became notable newsmen. Among the WTBC products are ABC national news reporter John Cochran, Birmingham television personalities Dave Baird and James Spann, CTSN announcer Tom Roberts, current WTBC owner John Sisty and disc jockey Tiger Jack Garrett as well as the late Stan Siegal.
Bank was elected to the University of Alabama's College of Communications Hall of Fame in 2001. In 2008, he was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Alabama.
Bank served two terms in the Alabama House of Representatives and one term as State Senator. He authored many bills that became law in Montgomery including a bill that resulted in the naming of Bryant-Denny Stadium. He fostered the implementation of a bill that resulted in the overhaul of the state's mental health facilities.
Bank earned many honors during his lifetime including the Thad Holt Distinguished Broadcaster's Award in 1969 and the Tuscaloosa Advertising Club's Man of the Year. He was a past president of the Alabama Broadcasters Association, the Junior Chamber of Commerce and Tuscaloosa Quarterback Club.
Bank enjoyed friendship with many of the South's most famous personalities including Charlie Finley, Adolph Rupp, Red Grange, Dizzy Dean, George Steinbrenner and coaching stars of the Southeastern Conference. He was a founding member of Indian Hills Country Club and in his prime played to an eight handicap. He continued to play up until his death and shot his age on several occasions.
He is survived by his two sons, Ralph Bank of Tuscaloosa and Jimmy Bank of Milwaukee, Wis., who serves as the traveling secretary for the Chicago Cubs and four grandchildren.
Bank's funeral services will be held Thursday, June 25 at the Moody Music Building on the UA campus. There will be a visitation from 8:30-10 a.m. (CDT) and the service will follow at 10 a.m. Bank will be buried alongside his parents, Sam and Bessie Bank, and his brother, Harold, at Evergreen Cemetery. Graveside services, with full military celebrations, will be held at 11 a.m. (CDT).