Japan to host WWII POWs in long-awaited reconciliation move
By CHARLIE REED | STARS AND STRIPES Published: August 21, 2010
YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — Lester Tenney’s trip to Japan next month will be anything but a vacation.
Tenney and five other World War II prisoners of war are coming here at the long-awaited invitation of the Japanese government, which during the war captured some 26,000 U.S. troops and forced them to work for Japanese companies.
Japan also interned tens of thousands of other allied troops and Chinese, Koreans and Filipinos during the Sino-Japanese War and World War II, using them as slave labor.. Tenney has for years petitioned Japan for such a trip, a contrite gesture which he said the country provided other allied troops from Australia, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands.
“We’ve been fighting for it,” the 90-year-old retired university professor said last week from his California home, his voice robust. “I can finally say I’m as good as the rest of them.”
The trip comes as a high point for Tenney after federal courts in the early 2000s dismissed lawsuits filed by him and other POWs against Japanese companies that used them in forced labor arrangements with the Imperial government.
But he contends the lawsuit was never about money. All he and the dwindling group of POWs have ever wanted, he said, is an apology.
After surviving the notorious Bataan Death March in the Philippines in April 1942, Tenney spent three years in Omuta on the southern tip of Japan working in the coal mines for Mitsui, which today is one of Japan’s largest conglomerates.
“If we didn’t work hard enough, they would beat us with pickaxes and shovels. I saw one of my friends tortured until both his legs had to be amputated,” said Tenney. The companies “didn’t stop their workers from beating us, and that was wrong.”
A company official for Nippon Coke and Engineering Co., formerly Mitsui Mining Co., declined to comment Thursday — a silence Tenney said has been standard since the end of the war.
The trip to Japan next month will take Tenney and the other POWs, along with several of their relatives and descendents of deceased POWs, to Tokyo and Kyoto with a third destination yet to be determined, said Kentaro Hatakeyama, deputy director of the North American Affairs Bureau of the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The purpose of the trip is reconciliation, Hatakeyama said.
“That’s what we want them to get from this trip. This is about the war and how to face the past and how to forgive the other side,” he said. “And these things are very difficult.”
Hatakeyama blamed the delay in organizing the trip on a lack of funding but said Japan sincerely wants to help the POWs achieve peace of mind.
The idea that Japan should apologize for anything after what happened at Hiroshima and Nagasaki — the first and only nuclear attacks in history and carried out by the United States — is a sometimes difficult proposition in Japan, said Kinue Tokudome, founder and director of the U.S.-Japan Dialogue on POWs.
An apology from Japan is not only deserved by the POWs but it would also benefit the atomic bomb victims — known as “hibakusha” — and their advocates, Tokudome said. Their cause is often marginalized by those who contend the United States acted wisely in dropping the atomic bombs to hasten the end of the war in the Pacific. But if Japan apologizes for the atrocities it committed during the war it could help Americans better understand the horrors inflicted by the atomic bomb, she said
It “would actually help the hibakusha groups to communicate their experience to the American people,” said Tokudome, who first began writing about Tenney and other POWs as a journalist in Los Angeles in the late 1990s.
Tokudome and her husband, both Japanese, spent 31 years in the United States before moving back to Japan last year. “I have two American born children,” she said. “The U.S. has given me so much; this was a little way I could give back.”
It is the kindness of Japanese such as Tokudome and others Tenney has encountered over the years and throughout his five previous trips to Japan to lecture about the war that have helped calm his soul over the years.
To those who refuse to accept Japan’s apology, his advice is simple: “You have to let go. Until you can start thinking differently, you will still be a prisoner, and you will die a prisoner.”
Jim Bashleben, left, Bob Martin, center, and Lester Tenney, all three from Company B, 192nd Tank Battalion, seen here on Sept. 12, 1945, at the Manila Replacement Camp after the war ended. Tenney is one of six World War II POWs returning to Japan next month at the invitation of the Japanese government. The trip is a gesture of goodwill by Japan, which forced some 26,000 U.S. POWs into slave labor during the war.
COURTESY OF LESTER TENNEY