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Memorial to American POWs in Sasebo receives an update

This drawing shows the layout of Camp 18 at Soto Dam. Fifty-three American prisoners of war died there in 1942, working as laborers to build the dam. Many of them died of pneumonia and dysentery.

COURTESY OF PHIL EAKINS

By TRAVIS J. TRITTEN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: May 30, 2010

 SASEBO NAVAL BASE, Japan — The names of many American prisoners of war who died here so long ago remained unknown for generations.

They labored through the winter of 1942, mixing concrete and hauling rocks in only the tropical clothes they were wearing when captured on Wake Island.

Under the yoke of the Imperial Japanese, 53 of the civilian contractors died – many of pneumonia and dysentery – building Soto Dam here in Sasebo city. But their stories were obscured and forgotten as the decades passed.

On Sunday, the historical record got a major revision and the names of all 53 Americans will be officially recognized for the first time – thanks to the work of a Sasebo historian and author.

“It was like dominoes,” said Phil Eakins, a U.S. Navy civilian who has pieced together the Soto Dam history. “One person knew somebody else who had some information and those people knew someone else.”

Gary Rogde is one of two known remaining survivors of the prison camp, according to correspondence Eakins provided to Stars and Stripes.

“I broke my left leg and my left hand working in the rock quarry” at Soto Dam, Rogde wrote. “My leg dangled for two years and had gangrene and osteomyelitis (a bone infection).”

The men suffered from the hard labor, little food, thin clothing and the harsh weather, according to Rogde.

A new plaque with a revised list of the 53 prisoner-of-war casualties was installed during a ceremony Sunday at the city dam. Sasebo city and the Navy hold an annual Memorial Day commemoration of those who died.

The memorial listed 31 mostly inaccurate names and 23 unknown casualties, as well as 14 Japanese who died building the dam, Eakins said.

“Many of the guys who are listed in the current plaque weren’t even at Soto Dam,” he said. “They had gone to other POW camps in Japan.”

Of the 31 names, only five were correctly identified, Eakins said.

The monument was made in 1956 and the names engraved on it were based on the information the Japanese could gather at the time, said Takehiko Hokao, of the water department’s business administration division.

“We are happy that it was sorted out,” he said.

Eakins said he first began the effort to uncover the unknown names in 1990.

With the help of the last few remaining survivors and the families of POWs, he was able to piece together who was confined at what the Japanese called Camp 18 and convince the local government to amend its memorial.

“All of us from Camp 18 thank you for letting people know what we had to do,” Rogde wrote to Eakins.

trittent@pstripes.osd.mil