Japan’s ‘whitewashing’ of World War II history rankles some U.S. veterans



Lester Tenney endured three hellish years as a Japanese prisoner during World War II, but with the passing of decades and repeated visits, he’s made peace with his former enemy. Yet as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe prepares to address Congress this week, in the 70th anniversary year of the war’s end, something rankles the U.S. military veteran about Japan’s attitude toward its past.

“They don’t want the young people to know what really happened,” complains Tenney, now 94.

The Associated Press spoke to three U.S. war veterans about their surrender in the Philippines in 1942 and their exploitation as slave laborers in Japan. It’s an episode of history most notorious for the Bataan Death March, when tens of thousands of Filipino and American prisoners of war were forced more than 100 km (65 miles) on foot to prison camps. Thousands are believed to have perished.

The AP also asked the veterans for opinions about Japan today. The U.S.-allied nation issued a formal apology to American POWs in 2009 and again in 2010, and has paid for some veterans to travel to Japan, leaving them with a more positive view of the Japanese people. All three veterans, however, remain adamant that their wartime experiences, and those of the POWs who didn’t make it, should not be forgotten.

Tenney, with the 192nd Tank Battalion, U.S. Army, said he was made to march for eight days after his capture.

“You had to stand on your own two feet and you had to keep moving. If you fell down, you died. If you had to go to the bathroom, you died. If you had a malaria attack, you died. The Japanese would just kill you, period. You had to stay on your feet. . . . If you looked at a Japanese soldier in the wrong way, he would beat the hell out of you.”

After a 28-day journey by ship to Japan, Tenney worked at a coal mine near the town of Omuta run by the Mitsui Mining Co., shoveling coal 12 hours a day for three years. He said British, Australian and Indonesian prisoners also worked there and they had no protective gear, and they’d self-inflict injuries to get days off. His weight dropped from 85 kg (189 pounds) to 44 kg (97 pounds). He said Mitsui has never responded to his letters calling for an apology.

Mitsui & Co., which was disbanded after the war and then re-established as a major industrial group, denies having any legal or historical responsibility for Mitsui Mining Co.’s treatment of forced laborers before or during the war. It says therefore it cannot comment on complaints or requests for apologies.

“If Mr. Abe comes here I would like him to say, ‘I bring with me an apology from the industrial giants that enslaved American POWs.’ He could say that very easily. . . . I’m afraid that when Mr. Abe leaves here, all of it’s going to be forgotten. They’re going to forget about apologies to the POWs, they’re going to forget they did anything wrong. It’s going to like whitewashing the whole thing,” Tenney said.

“You can’t have a high-ranking country today if you’re not willing to face your past. They have to admit their failures. If they admit their failures, then by golly they deserve to have the best.”

After the war, Tenney became a professor of economics at Arizona State University and today lives in Carlsbad, California. He has returned to Japan five times and was instrumental in starting Japanese government-supported “friendship” visits by POWs.

“The Japanese people were wonderful. They were very kind, they were very hospitable, no question about it. They treated us beautifully. . . . And there’s no reason why they shouldn’t. We didn’t do anything wrong (in the war).”

Harold Bergbower, 94, was a private with the U.S. Air Force’s 28th Bomb Squadron when he was captured on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao and eventually sent to Davao penal colony.

“We could not have been treated any worse in prison camp,” he said. “It was inhuman.”

Intensely sick during the voyage, he can’t recall the journey to Japan, in the broiling, closed holds of “hell ships” that carried POWs and Asian laborers. They were starved of food, deprived of water. Only decades after did he learn that the first ship he was on was hit in a U.S. bombing attack and forced to dock for repairs. Thousands died on such voyages.

Bergbower then spent two years in brutal labor, scooping ore into open furnaces at a steel mill in the city of Toyama. He was very bitter about his experience as a POW, and for more than 50 years he never talked about it, even to his wife and family.

“When I got back to the States after the war, I was told to go home and forget about it and that’s exactly what I did. I didn’t talk to anybody.”

His view of Japan changed when he went on a friendship visit in 2011 and returned to the factory where he’d been enslaved. Staff there apologized “from the heart” for what the POWs had been through. “I came away with a much different impression of Japan. We couldn’t have been treated any better.”

Bergbower, who lives near Phoenix, Arizona, said he has forgiven the people of Japan, but not the government. He doesn’t dwell on the past but said, “The truth needs to be told . . . it needs to be told as it happened.”

Darrell Stark, 93, was a new recruit of the U.S. Army’s 31st Infantry Regiment when he was captured and eventually shipped to Yokkaichi, the city in Japan where he was forced to shovel coal at a copper mill. Five years after the war, Stark received a letter from a Japanese man who showed him kindness and gave him food at the mill. Stark always regretted that he never replied.

Stark suffered post-traumatic stress disorder, but he recovered and enjoyed a long career as a corrections officer in Connecticut. He went to Japan on a friendship visit last October, and the current deputy director of the mill clasped his hand and apologized. Stark has also exchanged letters with the son of the man, now deceased, who’d showed him kindness 70 years ago.

“I found the people (in Japan) to be very friendly, the country very clean and the people that I talked to were very nice. It is amazing what the two countries have done together to accomplish what we have over all these years. It’s also amazing that with all this we have accomplished, they are not completely coming out with the truth,” Stark said.

  • JimmyJM

    For a view of the opposite side (Japanese POWs), read Ooka Shohei’s book “Taken Captive”. Compared to what the gentlemen in this story went through, Mr Ooka was very fortunate.

  • Paul Johnny Lynn

    See, even the people who suffered at the hands of Imperial Japanese forces are able to separate their hatred for the Japanese government of the day from their feelings towards the Japanese people of today. All they are asking is for the present Japanese government to stop covering up, or denying what happened then. Is that REALLY so hard to do???

    • R0ninX3ph

      Don’t worry, the Net-uyoku will be here soon enough to claim some kind of rubbish about Japan being the victim during the war, or some other bollocks…

  • etchasketch

    I didn’t learn about Japanese concentration camps until college. I guess grandpa is right, they really don’t want young people to know what really happened.

  • Franklin124

    The United States of America:
    -Had slavery
    -Nearly killed off an entire race of people for the crime being on US-land before it was the U.S.
    -Imprisoned innocent Japanese-Americans during World War Two
    -Did lots of other bad things

    I am an American. While I am not proud that my country did these things I think it is important that we admit they happened.

    Abe et al…what do you think?

    • R0ninX3ph

      Careful, logic confuses and scares the ultra-conservative.

    • ChinaMarine

      This article is about World War Two and Japan…

      If you want to comment about how countries treat people living inside their own borders, you might be very surprised to learn that Japan OPENLY Discriminates against foreigners…TODAY… Not talking 50 years ago… It’s legal today…Try renting an apartment, try buying property, try getting a job… Google “Sorry Japanese only” You’ll get thousands of hits…

      But I guess you’ve never actually lived in a foreign country… You’re just an armchair quarterback.

      • R0ninX3ph

        Perhaps you misinterpreted what Franklin was saying? I am pretty sure they are saying that if America can admit to its wrong doings in the past, should Japan not also be able to? Surely, the first step to fixing the present is to acknowledge the past?

      • ChinaMarine

        But comparing Apples & Oranges… A better analogy would be Bush invading Iraq, that would at least be something along the same lines as Japan’s war of aggression in ww2…

        For everything he mentioned about America, it was something America did domestically, not intetnationally, like invading and occupying other countries….

      • R0ninX3ph

        I get what you are saying, but I don’t think it really matters in the grand scheme of things.

        If what is needed is Japan admitting its fault in the past, evidence of other countries admitting their fault goes a long way to convince those who trot out the “everyone else did bad stuffs so its okay Japan did bad stuffs” argument (as seen by Tonyly below….)

        Are there different, possibly better, comparisons? Likely yes, but really the result we want is acceptance of responsibility for actions, something which happens quite rarely in Japanese society.

      • ChinaMarine

        I think I understand what you are trying to say, but if you are trying to make a real argument, you can’t draw comparisons between different types of events, that is, if you want your premise to hold water.

        That’s not the only problem I have with your argument, you’re pulling a whole other host of u.s. Domestic issues, and lumping them into the same category as what Japan did internationally…

        Not sure if you’ve ever takin any college level political science or government course, but you can’t compare apples & oranges, otherwise your argument is flawed…

      • I’d say the first step to fixing the present was forbidding war as a policy tool in Japan’s Constitution. The Past? My America still uses war as foreign policy. My Senator votes for “Authorization for the Use of Military Force.” The Japanese Diet can’t legally authorize Abe to attack a country for abstract policies like “nation-building,” “threat pre-emption,” and “national interests.”

        The Past? We apologized for Japanese internment, then did the same thing to Muslims after 911.

        So many want to write the apology script and have Abe read it. The Prime Minister uses his own words, “repentance, remorse.” But the Japanese Constitution says more than any script. No other Imperial Power has formally renounced military aggression. That, coupled with Japan’s economic stature sans aggression — proof that aggression is unnecessary — are vast symbolic statements of correction.

        That said, the formerly oppressed Asians and POWs must keep the fire of awareness burning, as Jews do with the Holocaust. It’s actually better that Abe keeps the controversy alive by speaking in his own words rather than capitulate to someone else’s thesaurus and put the controversy to rest. The controversy is more vital than the thesaurus.

      • R0ninX3ph

        I’m not disagreeing with you, but you do know Japan didn’t choose to write its own constitution right? They have chosen to follow it, thus far, until recently, with Abe wanting to repeal article 9, the so called article that prohibits war that you hold up as evidence of Japan showing remorse for its actions during World War 2.

        So…. if the current ruling bloc wants to remove the one thing that proves their remorse for the war…. what does it say about said remorse?

      • “Sorry Japanese only” means “Sorry, we only speak Japanese in this establishment, we don’t have an English translator to take your order.”

      • R0ninX3ph

        Thats been proven false many times…. Multiple Japanese only signs on places where foreigners are barred entry, not due to being unable to speak Japanese, but due to not being Japanese.

        Debito Arudo even pursued a case in Hokkaido about it…. Yes, sometimes it might be referring to the language of “Japanese” but most of the time, the signs are referring to the person, not the language.

    • n_coast

      I think the President has mentioned our faults a time or two.

  • Tonyly

    Pushing Abe to offer more apology will not stop China to build more islands in the South China sea, will not stop China to test anti-satellite technology. It doesn’t either help to remove any missile aiming at Taiwan, or to reduce the cyber hacking. It can only help China to enhance all these activities.
    China is actually the correct country to apology for the atrocities committed in the past decades in Asia. In the past 70 years China invaded Korea, India, and Vietnam. These wars caused many million deaths and broken families. China also exported revolutions to neighbour countries and caused several million more casualties. China was the only supporter to the Khmer Rouge. China even fought a war with Vietnam to save this most brutal Khmer Rouge regime.

    • Paul Johnny Lynn

      Once again the tired old “others did it too, so stop picking on Japan” argument. I think you’ll find on-one will deny that other countries have done, and are doing, equally repugnant acts. The topic of THIS article is the treatment of Allied prisoners in the hands of Imperial Japanese forces in W.W. II, and the feelings those survivors have towards Japan now.

  • carbonated_turtle

    Everything Japan did to POWs during WWII was completely overshadowed when the U.S. slaughtered around 200k civilians. Get over it, vets.