YOKOHAMA – Nine former American prisoners of war are in Japan to revisit some of the places where they were held seven decades ago, and to recount their memories.
The men, now all in their 90s, opened the tour Monday with a memorial service for their fellow fallen soldiers at the Commonwealth War Graves in Yokohama.
As they marked the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, the emphasis was on reconciliation.
George Rogers, of Lynchburg, Virginia, said he has no hard feelings. Now 96, he was taken captive by the Japanese after surviving the infamous Bataan death march in the Philippines in April 1942 and forced to work at a steel plant in southern Japan.
During his nearly 3½ years in captivity, Rogers was given meager food rations and sometimes beaten up.
He said that he was lucky to survive, but that he harbors “no hard feelings” toward his captors.
“Just like we do what we’re told to do as far as the army is concerned, your (Japanese) men do the same thing. They tell them to do it, they do it,” he said. “Other than that, I think we lived.”
A month after Japan’s Aug. 15, 1945, surrender, a severely malnourished Rogers returned to the U.S. and, despite being 6 feet 3 inches tall (190 cm), he weighed only 85 pounds (38 kg).
His doctor told him — he was 26 at the time — that he would most likely not live past about 45 or 50 years old, keep his teeth or have children.
Rogers still has his teeth, and he has five children.
One of them, Jeffrey, accompanied his father to Japan.
During the 1943 Bataan march in the Philippines, Rogers and thousands of prisoners were forced to walk more than 60 miles (about 100 km) under severe, sweltering conditions while being abused by their captors.
Many died along the way.
“They didn’t give me any food, and I didn’t get much water when I needed it, but other than that, it was a long trip, very far,” Rogers said.
Historians say some 30,000 Allied Forces members were held as prisoners in Japan during World War II.
At Monday’s memorial service, the nine veterans, assisted by their family members and attendees from the U.S. Navy, laid flowers for their fellow countrymen who perished while in captivity.
The participants, visiting Japan at the invitation of the Foreign Ministry under a program for reconciliation that started five years ago, are scheduled to visit some former camp sites, including in Osaka, Yokohama and Kamioka in Gifu Prefecture.
Japan has similar programs with Australia and Britain. Many former POWs still harbor hard feelings because of harsh treatment by the Japanese.
It took 94-year-old Arthur Gruenberg, from Camano Island, Washington state, 70 years to come back.
The former U.S. Marine surrendered at Corregidor, Philippines, in May 1942, and was eventually sent to work in a mine in Fukuoka Prefecture.
By then he was blind in one eye due to vitamin A deficiency.
Gruenberg said he was simply impressed by Japan’s postwar development and hoped it remains a peace-loving nation.
“Everything is just amazing, it’s unbelievable,” he said. “I can’t say it (my feelings) has changed much, I just hope we don’t have any more wars.”