CARLSBAD, Calif. — Sixty-seven years ago this month, on April 9, 1942, I was surrendered to the Japanese Imperial Army on the Bataan Peninsula in the Philippines. At my first prison camp, the Japanese commandant turned to the American prisoners of war (POWs) and told us that we were “lower than dogs” and “they (the Japanese) would treat us that way for the rest of our lives.” Then he said, “We will never be friends with the piggish Americans.
For a long time I thought he was right. But we have both changed. This year, I welcomed the Japanese government’s first official apology to the American POWs, 63 years after our liberation.
If my fellow soldiers or I had known the consequences of being a POW of the Japanese, we would have fought to the death. After three long months of jungle fighting against a better-equipped invasion force, the American and Filipino troops were starving, sick, exhausted and out of ammunition.
At surrender, we were immediately forced to march 105 km through the steaming Bataan Peninsula without food, water, medical treatment or rest. Today, the Bataan Death March is remembered as one of the worst war crimes of World War II.
I will never forget my buddies who were shot simply for trying to get a drink of water; crushed by a tank for stumbling; bayoneted just because they could not take another step; or forced at gun point to bury alive the sick. I bear a deep scar where a Japanese officer on horseback brought his samurai sword down on my shoulder.
Those who survived the Death March faced over three years of unimaginably brutal imprisonment. Many, like me, were herded into “Hell Ships,” packed shoulder to shoulder without food or sanitation and shipped to factories, mines and docks across the Japanese Empire. The survivors were literally sold to private Japanese companies to work sustaining wartime production.
I dug coal in a dangerous Mitsui Corporation-owned mine. Like all POWs, I was overworked, beaten, humiliated and starved. The damage and suffering we endured from these companies’ employees were comparable to, and sometimes worse than, that inflicted upon us by the Imperial Japanese military. Among World War II combat veterans and former POWs, those who were prisoners of the Japanese have the highest percentage of post-traumatic stress disorders. To say the least, we POWs had and still have intense feelings about Japan.
Yet the Japanese commandant who belittled his American captives was wrong. The United States and Japan have become friends and close allies — a result we welcome. My anger has been tempered by the many Japanese people who have welcomed me to Japan. Personal friendships and common goals heal many wounds.
Our unfortunate history came largely to closure in a personal meeting with the Japanese ambassador to the U.S. and his wife last November. I was finally able to tell a Japanese official my story. He heard of my humiliations, saw my scars and learned of my Japanese friends who have helped me overcome my POW trauma.
I asked for the ambassador’s help in requesting three things from his government so that justice is achieved for POWs: (1) an official apology; (2) an appeal to companies to apologize for their wartime use of POWs; and (3) a reconciliation project.
In December, the ambassador wrote me with news for which I have waited decades. His letter said that Japan’s government extends “a heartfelt apology for our country having caused tremendous damage and suffering to many people, including those who have undergone tragic experiences in the Bataan Peninsula and Corregidor Island in the Philippines.”
This acknowledging gesture was followed in February by a Cabinet-approved statement to a member of the Diet that extended the apology to all “former POWs.” It is the first official apology specifically to mention POWs or any particular group hurt by Imperial Japan.
We POWs accept these long-sought apologies and now ask Japan to state them for all to hear and understand. I trust that my two other requests will be fulfilled soon. It has taken nearly seven decades, but Japan’s recognition of its mistreatment of POWs attains historic justice and brings fullness to the U.S.-Japan relationship. A future of a peaceful alliance is what we really wanted in the first place.
Dr. Lester Tenney is a professor emeritus of business administration from Arizona State University and commander of the American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor. He is a survivor of the Bataan Death March and a Mitsui coal mine.