U.S. POWs come back to Japan, recall their wartime ordeals

by Elaine Kurtenbach


The prisoners of war held in Tokyo’s Omori POW camp saw some of the most horrific destruction during the last months of World War II, as American B-29 bombers dropped incendiary bombs that obliterated much of the city.

But in those hungry times, they also were among the luckiest, says Bill Sanchez, 96, who along with two other former prisoners visited last week the Heiwajima Kannon, a statue of the Goddess of Mercy built near the site of the former POW camp to mourn the war dead.

Like many other POWs held in Omori, Sanchez was put to work loading and unloading cargo on the docks.

“Which was great work because we had a lot of opportunities to pinch food. We learned real quick,” said Sanchez, of Monterey Park, California, who watched as American fire bombs incinerated nearby neighborhoods.

The Omori camp’s barracks once occupied nearly half of a tiny island reclaimed from Tokyo Bay with help from prisoners like Sanchez. Today Heiwajima, or Peace Island, is barely distinguishable from the rest of Tokyo.

The camp’s former site is now a boat racing venue surrounded by bland office buildings.

“All this land you see was reclaimed by us, the American prisoners of the war and the British prisoners of the war,” Sanchez said. “And I am amazed at how well they have used the land.”

Seven former POWs, all in their 90s, were visiting Japan at the invitation of the Japanese government under a program that started five years ago.

Jack Schwartz, 99, of Hanford, California, was a civil engineering graduate of the California Institute of Technology when he enlisted in the Navy Civil Engineer Corps in 1940. Taken prisoner on Guam, he spent much of his imprisonment at the Zentsuji Camp, a “showcase” camp in Shikoku.

Still, he said, “In four years, I never had a good meal.”

“I arrived two days ago and had my first good meal ever in Japan,” he said in a talk by the group at Tokyo’s Temple University last Wednesday.

Like the other former POWs, Schwartz marveled at Tokyo’s progress since Japan’s surrender in August 1945, especially high-tech toilets equipped to warm, wash and dry.

During the war, the Japanese held over 30,000 Allied force members as prisoners in dozens of camps in Japan, China and elsewhere in Asia, according to the POW Research Network Japan.

The former POWs said they understood that the cruelty and brutality they experienced during the war had much to do with the times.

One of 91-year-old Darrel Stark’s most vivid memories is of a supervisor in the prison camp at Yokkaichi, a copper smelting center in Mie Prefecture, who did not retaliate when Stark and another prisoner stole his lunch.

“He came the next day with two lunches, ‘One for you, and one for me,’ ” said Stark, of Stafford Springs, Connecticut. “If he had reported me, I wouldn’t have been speaking to you tonight.”

  • Kevin Menzies

    Whilst I am in awe of Mr Schwartz and all the POW’s, the statement about Zentsuji:
    “….a “showcase” camp in Shikoku…..”
    Disturbs me because of the connotations that people will sometimes put on this description.
    There was no such thing as “a show camp” in the Japanese system in world war 2.

    – All camps came under the same set of orders and administration system.
    – Accidental things like location (rural like Zentsuji) v urban or near
    an industrial complex (e.g. coal mine, steel mill) affected the
    “comfort” level of a camp.

    Mainly Zentsuji was a grinding, sapping boring place where one day was a repeat of the next. As in most camps in Japan, on one level Guards and POW’s
    co-existed and at times individuals almost became friendly. This was not exclusive to Zentsuji, this is how most camps were in Japan.

    The POW’s were work horses being slowly ground down. Those who were not officers in Zentsuji (such as my father) were forced into hard manual Labour. This had advantages (e.g. opportunities to steal food) and disadvantages (e.g. the physical toll of hard manual labour om a poor diet. The psychological stress of possible punishments if caught stealing food to live.) But always the threat of
    mistreatment from the guards was lingering under the surface as well as
    inherent institutional mistreatment such as poor diet and conditions.

    Men died in Zentsuji of mistreatment and starvation.
    This Does not sound like a “show” camp to me.

    This “show camp” description of Zentsuji, is based on misinformation. A lot of this misinformation comes from:
    1. Claims of the Red Cross visits to Zentsuji. Well the Red Cross visited many camps in Japan Including Omori.
    2.Rumours that Tojo visited Zentsuji POW camp in 1942. Not true, never
    happened. But he did visit Omori camp (as did the Red Cross). Nobody is
    calling Omori a show camp based on this.
    3. Early Zentsuji was the only camp in Japan and until the repatriations in mid-1942 conditions were what might be called “Tough but fair.” After this, as the war turned against Japan, things got worse and worse at Zentsuji. (e.g.
    Hutchinson-Smith in his large memoir details the scam of the Japanese
    supply officers (especially Lt Matsumoto) siphoning away POW’s rations
    to sell on the black market.) (found in AWM, Canberra: MS1534 PT1,2,3)
    4. By the end of the war things were
    extremely bad as documented in the diary of an English officer Capt.
    Murphy (found in IWM London: Catalogue number 1707 87/58/1 Private papers of M P Murphy)
    5.Men who were in Zentsuji early on saw it in the “good” light compared
    to where they were transferred to. They were not in Zentsuji later on
    as things worsened. So they presented Zentsuji as they saw it, in the
    “good” light.
    6. Early on some propaganda films were made of POW’s
    receiving fruit and good food. The reality was out of sight of the
    camera armed guards confiscated these goodies.

    I am certainly not
    putting Zentsuji in the category of the worst camps, it was probably at
    the better end, due to luck of location. But it was never a “show”
    camp. There was no such thing.