OSAKA — For 56 years, Ben Comstock, 82, an American captured by Japanese forces on Wake Island in December 1941, has been waiting.
He waited in the hold of a transport ship — prisoners dubbed them “hell ships” because of their inhumane conditions — and was taken from Wake Island to Shanghai.
He waited for liberation by the Allies as he endured life as a POW, first in China and then as a slave laborer at what is now Hitachi Shipyards on Sakurajima, Osaka, near Universal Studios Japan. “Our camp was located near a lumberyard, and there were between 300 and 350 Australian, British, and Americans. We were led from the camp to (the) Hitachi Shipyard site, where company supervisors took over,” Comstock said from his Bellevue, Neb., home.
“At the camp, I was beaten and tortured. I had a number of odd jobs, one of which was making coffins,” Comstock said. He estimates that between 10 percent and 15 percent of the prisoners died while in captivity.
Comstock and his fellow POWs also waited for justice and reparations after the fighting ended in 1945, only to be told that, because they were civilians at the time of capture, they weren’t eligible for veterans benefits.
Comstock and other civilian workers were also told they would receive none of the wages their Japanese employers had promised. “We returned from the war and didn’t get a dime,” he said.
Nearly 25,000 prisoners were forced into slave labor for Japanese firms between 1941 and 1945. Now in their twilight years, many have decided to wait no longer.
Since the late 1990s, efforts by veterans groups throughout the United States to get Japanese companies that used slave labor to provide compensation and an apology have won verbal support from U.S. politicians, first at the state level and, more recently, in Congress.
To strengthen the POWs’ case, however, a reinterpretation of history is necessary.
Both the U.S. and Japanese governments have repeatedly said all war claims against Japan were settled under Article 14, section B of the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty. This states that the Allies waive all their claims, as well as the claims of their nationals, arising out of any actions taken by Japan and its nationals during the war.
However, former POWs say another provision in the peace treaty overrides this claim. Article 26 states that should Japan make a war claims settlement that grants a state greater advantages than those provided by the treaty, then other states will get the same advantages.
In late March, H.R. 1198, a bill sponsored by California Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher to offer support to American POWs suing Japanese firms in California and elsewhere, was introduced in the House of Representatives. The bill, which has 45 bipartisan cosponsors, orders that U.S. courts not construe Article 14, section B as constituting a waiver by the U.S.
“The State Department has made a restrictive interpretation of the treaty, and is the biggest obstacle to justice,” said Ricardo Bernal, a spokesman for Rohrabacher’s office.
“Japan extended more favorable terms for reparations to citizens from other countries while American prisoners are being denied a fair hearing. This is an effort to tell Japanese companies which profited from slave labor to remedy their wrongs,” he said.
In their attempts to get compensation, veterans groups have pointed to agreements between Japan and other nations, including The Netherlands, Sweden and Switzerland, after the 1951 treaty that compensated civilian internees.
The legislation sponsored by Rohrabacher is currently being discussed in three House committees, including the Judiciary, International Relations and government reform committees.
H.R. 1198 is the latest in a series of legislative acts by the U.S. government to deal with Japan’s wartime activities against the U.S. At the end of December, then President Bill Clinton signed into law a bill requiring full disclosure of classified documents in the possession of the U.S. government regarding the Imperial Japanese Army and its activities during World War II.
The law is an expansion of legislation the president had signed in 1999 to create an interagency working group to look into crimes committed by Nazi Germany.
Much of the declassification is being done by Linda Goetz Holmes, the group’s Pacific War historian. In January, Holmes published “Unjust Enrichment,” an account of how Japanese corporations exploited American POWs as slave labor, which introduced much of the information the IWG had dug up.
She notes that, contrary to assumptions that the Japanese military pushed the POWs onto Japanese firms, recently declassified documents show the use of prisoners was strongly desired by the companies themselves.
“In 1942, the Japanese government passed a law that ordered companies to pay POWs the same as what a Japanese soldier would receive. This didn’t happen because companies altered their accounts,” Holmes said.
“During the Tokyo Trials, evidence was available, but not introduced, concerning POW abuses. In 1951, the U.S. offered POWs the equivalent of $1.50 for every day they had done slave labor, but this was done in lieu of war claims,” she said.
In response to questions about POW compensation, both the Foreign Ministry and the State Department have repeatedly insisted that there is no basis for the lawsuits.
Politically, things are more complex. Last December, just as Clinton was approving the legislation to declassify Japanese army records, Thomas Pickering of the State Department told the Japanese ambassador to the U.S. that, although Japanese firms have no legal obligations to the POWs, they might want to consider setting up some sort of voluntary fund.
But what really bothers diplomats who were hoping for a quiet resolution is the timing of the recent demands.
“It’s been a real bad winter for U.S.-Japan relations. Bringing this (H.R. 1198) up right now isn’t going to make things easier,” said one Japan-based U.S. official, speaking anonymously.
If diplomats are being cautious on the issue, then the Diet is being silent. Unlike the U.S. Congress, the issue of compensation for POWs, American or otherwise, is off the radar of most politicians.
“There is no serious debate currently taking place about locating records related to POW slave labor or offering compensation to ex-POWs. Once you start a debate like that, you’ve opened up a Pandora’s box of unresolved historical issues,” said Shoji Motooka, an Upper House member of the Democratic Party of Japan, who has supported Diet efforts to get compensation for “comfort women,” who were forced into sexual slavery for Japanese soldiers before and during the war.
But for Ben Comstock and the other POWs, time is running out. Only about 5,500 POWs who performed slave labor are still living.
“It’s time for the companies to pay their debts, and it’s time for the American government to stop protecting them,” Comstock said.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.