WASHINGTON - 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.