“There is a time for everything and a season for every activity under the heavens: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to kill and a time to heal, a time for war and a time for peace.” — Ecclesiastes 3:1-8
Three-quarters of a century have passed since William Chittenden found himself aboard a U.S. Navy ship sailing for China, a freshly enlisted marine of 19 years old in a time of war of the most extreme and brutal kind.
This young man would be thrust into adulthood in the cruelest of ways — serving in the midst of a global conflict that would cut short more than 60 million lives and see more than 140,000 held in prisoner-of-war camps throughout Japan’s nascent empire.
Speaking at a time of peace to an audience of mostly expats in Tokyo, Chittenden, now 95, demonstrated an alarmingly keen memory as he delivered a message of forgiveness and reconciliation in the country where he had once spent years as a prisoner of war.
“I’ve never carried any resentment,” Chittenden said. “I’m a great believer that the little people — and by the little people I mean the people not in charge, the regular population of the Japanese — are very friendly and very good people. Japan had bad leadership and that’s all changed, that’s all history.”
Every year Japan’s Foreign Ministry invites a group of American former POWs to spend a week in Japan and speak about their experiences during World War II. Last year’s talk at Temple University Japan had an underlying theme of the horrors of their bitter fight for survival in the POW camps in the 1940s. This year, much of the talk among the nine visitors was of forgiveness.
Chittenden, in particular, spoke of his amazement at how far Japan has come since the end of the war.
“There are several things that have struck me: one, the courtesy of Japanese people — they’re a charming population,” he said. “I’m amazed at the great architecture I see in the country, from their bridges to their buildings. I would just like to say I appreciate the opportunity to return to Japan as I have this week, and it’s been an education to me.”
When Chittenden enlisted as a naive teenager in 1939, he probably did not consider the possibility that his decision would land him in a POW camp along with 1,200 U.S. military and civilians in Woo Sung, China, in February 1942. He would go on to labor in a total of five POW camps during his 3½ years in captivity.
In March 1940, Chittenden’s journey began aboard the USS Henderson, sailing for Peking, where he had been assigned to protect the U.S. Embassy. On Dec. 8, 1941, just after the Pearl Harbor attack dragged the U.S. into the war, the Japanese overran the embassy and took Chittenden and 140 other marines prisoner, herding them aboard freight cars for a four-day journey to the Woo Sung POW camp near Shanghai.
Chittenden and 1,200 other POWs labored at Woo Sung until December 1942, when they were moved to the nearby Kiangwan camp. In August 1943 the Japanese put a group of men from the camp on a boat to Kawasaki. Chittenden was among the group that endured that harsh four-day journey across the East China Sea.
Chittenden worked at a steel mill in Kawasaki for two years, unloading cargo from freight ships, until mid-April 1945, when U.S. B-29 bombers leveled whole areas of the city.
“I was in a bomb shelter across the street from our POW barracks. It was built under a series of railroad tracks,” recalled Chittenden. “We had a four-hour incendiary night that night. . . . When we went back to our barracks the next morning, we saw that the whole town had been burned to the ground.”
Chittenden and 500 surviving prisoners were then moved to Kobe aboard one of the notorious “hell ships.” In June 1945 Chittenden was moved to yet another POW camp, in Niigata, where he worked as a stevedore until the Japanese surrender on Aug. 14. Weeks later, Chittenden was flown back home, finally arriving in the U.S. as a free man on Sept. 12.
“My thoughts were, ‘Thank God I lived through it,’ ” said Chittenden, “because there were many times when I didn’t know that I would, because every man in the camp had beriberi. We had practically no medicine, we were all starving and we were hungry. My normal weight was 150 pounds (68 kg) and I weighed about 100 pounds when the war was over. And that was true of everybody — everybody lost weight, everybody had beriberi and pellagra and all these diseases.”
Chittenden enrolled at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana and graduated in 1949. He went on to work in the men’s clothing department at a Sears store until 1989, got married and had three children.
Fifty years after his liberation, Chittenden published a memoir about his wartime experiences. In the years following his release, he used this writing as a coping mechanism, and Chittenden feels it helped him come to terms with his ordeal while he was still a young man.
Sitting a few feet away from Chittenden at the talk in Tokyo was 92-year-old Leland Chandler, another former U.S. POW who, unlike Chittenden, needed a number of years to recover from his horrific experiences in the war.
“When I arrived back in the United States, I was so happy to be back that at that particular time, I did not talk about my experiences very much,” explained Chandler. “Once in a while I would say something, but most of the time it took me several months. With the exception of my immediate family, I did not feel comfortable talking to strangers about it, so I learned how to keep my mouth shut.”
Chandler served with the 60th Artillery anti-aircraft regiment on Corregidor Island in the Philippines. After U.S. forces on the island surrendered to the Japanese in April 1942, Chandler spent his first six months as a POW at Camp Cabanatuan. After that, Chandler and nearly 1,500 American POWs were sent to Japan aboard the Nagata Maru hell ship. More than 200 men perished during the journey. On his arrival in Osaka, Chandler began working as a slave laborer at a steel mill, where says he had to fight to survive.
“People always asked me, why did I survive and how did I survive? And I always said, ‘I’m going to live long enough to come home and get some back tail.'”
Chandler’s next stop was the Oeyama POW camp, where he worked as a stevedore for 10 months at Miyazu Harbor until the end of the war. Several years after returning to the U.S., Chandler married, and he worked as a fire chief until his retirement in 1974.
“I had resentment for 10 to 15 years,” Chandler said. “My wife and I, when we would both go to church, I would hear the minister say, ‘Forgive ‘em, forgive your neighbor, forgive!’ I looked that preacher in the eye and I thought, ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about.’
“About a week later at church, the preacher was talking about ‘forgive.’ I got up in front of the entire congregation, and I said, ‘I forgive all the Japanese people. I will treat them equally, there is no difference between us, all in the past has been forgotten,” said Chandler. “I have felt better to this day and I won’t go back.”