Bataan survivor sees Japan visits as opportunities for reconciliation

Kyodo News

A visit by six former American prisoners of war to Japan has opened a door to reconciliation that should be opened wider, according to Lester Tenney, a survivor of the infamous 1942 Bataan Death March in the Philippines.

In an interview in Tokyo earlier this month, Tenney, a 90-year-old professor emeritus at Arizona State University who now lives in California, suggested that much progress needs to be made on issues involving Japanese companies that used POWs as slave labor during the war.

The six former captives of the Imperial Japanese Army and their families received an apology Sept. 13 in Tokyo from then Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada. They were in Japan at the government’s invitation on the first trip of its kind for American POWs.

“Many of my colleagues think it’s too little, too late,” Tenney said of the offer. But “now the door is open, we have to take advantage of it.”

Tenney suggested that more ex-POWs and their families might be willing to come over next year.

Tokyo had already sponsored visits for POWs from other Allied countries, including Britain and the Netherlands. Tenney speculated that the delay in inviting American POWs is ingrained in what the U.S. did during and after World War II. After the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Japanese probably didn’t want anything to do with them, he said.

Tenney is one of some 75,000 POWs who were forced to walk for nearly a week in punishing tropical heat in 1942 to a prison camp on the Bataan Peninsula on Luzon Island, Denied food and water, thousands died along the way from dehydration, rape, beatings or indiscriminate murder at the hands of their Japanese captors.

Tenney recounted the abuse he suffered upon arriving at the camp after surviving the march, quoting a Japanese officer as telling the POWs: “You Americans are lower than dogs, you are cowards and you are going to be treated that way for the rest of your lives.”

Tenney was forced to work in the depths of the Mitsui Miike Coal Mine in Omuta, Fukuoka Prefecture, from 1943 to the end of the war in 1945. He toiled 12 hours a day and was physically abused two to three times a week, he said.

“The Japanese workers in the coal mine . . . would beat me for no reason, just because I wasn’t working hard enough, didn’t work fast enough,” he said. “They knocked my teeth out, broke my nose.” Tenney, who has unsuccessfully sought damages from Mitsui in U.S. court, is seeking apologies from that company and other firms which used POWs as forced laborers.

“The private companies who should be doing something are staying quiet. All we want is that they say they were sorry,” he said. “We don’t want money. All we want is to have them acknowledge the fact that what they did during World War II was wrong.”