Former POWs share stories of imprisonment with Japanese children
OSAKA, Japan — The fifth-graders looked curiously at the three aging Americans who were imprisoned here a lifetime before they were born, one in a forced labor camp less than a mile from their school. Their questions were innocent and blunt.
“Why did the war start?”
“Why do we have to have war?”
“What do you think of the atom bomb?”
The questions reminded the men of the heartbreak and pain they endured for years as prisoners of war in Japan. But it also gave them hope that such concerns by those so young might help avoid another war.
Before the discussion began at Takami Elementary School on a rainy Thursday morning, the ex-POWs kicked off their shoes in traditional Japanese style and slid into slippers before entering the classroom, just as the children did.
In his native Texas drawl, Douglas Northam, 92, smiled brightly at the students while venturing a few words of Japanese. He asked them to pass along an “Ohayo” (good morning) to their grandparents from an “American grandpa and an American grandma,” referring to his wife, Hazel, who sat next to him in front of the class. The couple now lives in Reno, Nev.
The ex-POWS arrived in Japan last weekend for a “reconciliation tour” funded by the Japanese government as a way to apologize for the horrible mistreatment the men endured.
Osaka has “changed so much since I was here,” said Bob Ehrhart, 89, who was held at the nearby Sakurajima work camp, which once housed hundreds of American and other allied POWs.
The camp is just a memory, paved over by towering apartment buildings and neon-lit grocery stores in Osaka’s Konohana ward. Before going to the school, the men were driven through the neighborhood where Ehrhart was held for 19 months.
Despite the gray gloom that shrouded the city, Osaka is “just beautiful now,” Ehrhart, who lives in Carmichael, Calif., told the children.
“When I left, there was nothing but rubble,” he said, referring to the allied firebombings of Osaka that began March 13, 1945, and ended Aug. 14, the day before Japan surrendered.
“It was terrible for us and it was terrible for you,” Erhart told the students. “War is stupid. … I hope you kids never see war.”
The men answered the children’s questions while sipping hot green tea and nibbling on flower-shaped bean paste sweets.
“We didn’t know it was an atomic bomb. We POWs were hopeful that it would help release us from our bondage so we could go home,” Northam said. “When we went home and found out what the atom bomb was, we were horrified.”
But without it “more people would have died,” said Northam, echoing a long-held position by many Americans that had the U.S. not dropped nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki — the only time such weapons have been used against civilian targets — millions more Japanese and Americans would have died as the war dragged on.
“If the bomb didn’t drop I wouldn’t be here before you now,” George Summers, 90, told the children. “Would you be here today if it weren’t for the bomb?”
Summers, a brusque man from Riverside, Calif., who was accompanied by his daughter, Linda Oberman, asked the students if they had heard of the horrors that the men endured as POWs.
“I was only six and seven years older than you when I came here,” Summers said. “I often said to myself, ‘Why am I here? … Where is the happiness I learned in school? Where is my beautiful girlfriend?’
“When I look back I say to myself, ‘What a waste of time. Four years gone,’ ” said Summers, who was held as a POW in Guam before coming to Japan on one of the notorious “hell ships” the Imperial Army used for transport.
“War is the curse of the world,” Summers said with a booming voice that filled the room, his responses translated by an official from Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “You must always remember that.”
The U.S. enemy-turned-ally captured some 27,000 U.S. troops and forced them into slave labor during World War II; 40 percent died. Most of the POWs who were brought to Japan were dispersed among more than 100 camps run by approximately 60 companies, some of which are still in business today.
The POWs suffered at the hands of their Japanese captors: torture, starvation, disease, exposure and the all-too-regular deaths of their brothers-in-arms.
During a lecture Monday in Tokyo, seven POWs recounted tales of life as slave laborers and the subtle acts of defiance they pulled off while working in Japanese factories and mines.
Summers recounted being so hungry that while on latrine duty, he picked out undigested soy beans from fecal matter.
Another time, he stashed stolen rice in his shoes but was caught after being sent to the doctor for an injury.
“I had to stand for hours with my hands tied behind my back and an apple on my head,” he said. When the guard came to check on him, he said he was beaten if the apple had fallen.
Ehrhart later told Stars and Stripes he survived by finding black humor in the horror before it could swallow his soul.
During his three years as a POW, first in the Philippines, Ehrhart drew 133 cartoons that he managed to bring back home and is in the process of publishing.
He sketched on toilet paper, labels from cans of condensed milk and any other scraps of paper he could swipe from his Japanese captors or that he bought from other POWs with his cigarette rations. He drew on the backs of the milk labels and documented atrocities in tiny print in between the listed ingredients.
“It not only helped me but also my barracksmen. They would give me ideas,” Erhart said. “It was about the only time we weren’t thinking about food.”
He had to redraw many of them after returning to his barracks one day to find it had been ransacked by the Japanese, who found the cartoons and “gave me the beating of my life.”
Some are funny — caricatures of the often brutal POW camp bosses the men knew as honchos; others are dark — depictions of imagined self-mutilation to get out of work.
“Some are just crappy,” said the soft-spoken man. “But they all tell a story.”
Several companies have hosted site visits for the POWs since Japan began the reconciliation tours in 2010, when the country issued a long-awaited apology for the brutality the men suffered in captivity. When meeting with the POWs each year, Japanese officials reiterate the apology.
Despite some corporate willingness to meet with the men, the companies have yet to apologize.
Still, Hitachi Zosen opened the doors to one of its factories to the men Wednesday.
Known as Osaka Iron Works during the war, the former shipbuilding company now makes steel and other industrial materials. Ehrhart was a riveter for the company for 19 months — a job he said he was lucky to get because it allowed him to escape the heinous Sakurajima camp for most of the day.
The factory, buried deep in city’s glum industrial district and one of several Hitachi factories in Osaka, is not the same place where Erhart worked. That one no longer exists, said plant manager Toru Hosokawa. It’s now a Universal Studios site.
“I really wanted to come back,” Ehrhart told the company officials who sat at a square of four long tables in a fluorescent-lit room in the factory’s executive building. “I don’t know why, maybe go back to the scene of the crime.
“I’m happy to be here to get closure,” he said. “Although the work was hard, we were not treated badly like we were in the camp. I was lucky. The owners were interested in getting work done, not getting revenge on us.”
After touring the graphic POW exhibition at the Osaka International Peace Center as middle school-aged Japanese students buzzed around, the men spoke with local resident Takao Iga, 79, who was a girl when they were POWs, and Koichi Ikeda, 86, a former Imperial Army soldier from Osaka who was a POW in Siberia during WWII.
Summers was struck by Iga’s story of how she lost her mother and younger brother during the firebombing yet still felt pity for the skinny, downtrodden men she would spy on at the camp.
“I wanted her to feel that she was not alone,” said Summers, who remembers bombers filling the Osaka sky “from one end to the other,” after which “there was nothing left but smoldering ruins.”
“I was there with her,” Summers said.
Iga’s tale reminded the men of the intermittent but deeply meaningful kindnesses shown to them by some Japanese. Northam recalled when a honcho brought two bottles of beer for him and 17 other men to share around Christmas 1944.
“We each got about two swallows,” he said. And with it, “a little hope.”
“It shows that the human spirit will always offer help to someone in dire need.”
Northam said he built up a sense of hatred and resentment to help him get through his years of brutality.
“But I purged myself of that hatred,” he said.
“I made peace with myself.”
The children at Takami Elementary School melted his and the other men’s hearts.
“I feel hopeful today meeting with you,” Northam told the students.