Lester Tenney, an 87-year-old veteran of World War II, plans to travel to Japan today to seek a meeting with the prime minister and an apology for the hardship and misery he and other American prisoners of war endured in that country. For a variety of reasons, beginning with the State Department’s stance on the issue, it is an apology that he is unlikely to receive.
In the fall of 1940, Mr. Tenney enlisted in the 192nd Tank Battalion, Company B, of the Illinois National Guard, which was sent to the Philippines a year later.
When the Japanese attacked in December 1941, the American and Filipino forces were unprepared. A three-month siege on the Bataan Peninsula left Mr. Tenney and his comrades starving and sick. On April 9, 1942, the American commanders surrendered, and the 65-mile Bataan Death March began.
The march lasted four to seven days (for some it was 14), in the tropical sun with no food, water, medicine or rest. The Japanese guards beat, beheaded, bayoneted, buried alive and shot the Americans and Filipinos at will.
When they reached the town of San Fernando, the P.O.W.’s were herded into boxcars and packed so tightly they could hardly move. Men gasped for air in the rising heat and died standing up. Those who survived the four-hour ride then had to stumble six miles to Camp O’Donnell.
But Mr. Tenney’s ordeal was just beginning. Herded onto a “hell ship,” he and his comrades were sent to Japan to work in mines and factories and on docks owned by companies like Mitsui, Mitsubishi, Kawasaki and Nippon Steel. Beatings and other abuses continued. Food and medicine were in short supply; Red Cross food boxes were never delivered to prisoners. Mr. Tenney spent more than two years in a Mitsui coal mine so dangerous that some Japanese miners refused to work there. The death rate for the Allied prisoners of Japan in World War II was 27 percent, far greater than the rate for British and American soldiers in German captivity, about 4 percent.
Since the war ended, the Japanese government has either ignored or denied efforts by American former prisoners of war to obtain compensation or an apology. Japanese companies have sought to suppress historical documentation of forced P.O.W. labor. In 2005, one of Japan’s most prominent magazines, Bungei Shunju, published an article arguing not only that the Bataan Death March was less severe than reported but also that the testimony of the survivors was “gathered based upon the assumption that an atrocity of the Death March did take place.” Remarkably, members of Japan’s Parliament plan to introduce a bill having to do with prisoners of World War II — but it is meant to provide back pay and pensions for Korean and other non-Japanese camp guards who had been convicted as war criminals for abusing Allied P.O.W.’s.
More troubling in some ways, however, is the American government’s attitude toward the legal claims that former P.O.W.’s have filed in American and Japanese courts. In many cases, the State and Justice Departments have supported arguments by Japanese corporations that the 1951 San Francisco Treaty between the Allies and Japan waived all compensation claims. The State Department has also on occasion joined forces with the Japanese Embassy to argue against legislation in Congress asking for compensation from either the American or Japanese governments.
Australian, British and Dutch prisoners held by Japan during World War II have received apologies from Japanese prime ministers and invitations to visit Japan to encourage healing, understanding and education. Their own governments have also compensated them.
Lester Tenney, the current and most likely the last commander of the veterans’ organization American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor, wants only the same: an apology and an honorable closure of this horrible chapter in American-Japan relations. And he hopes that this time the American government, which so far has not supported his request for a meeting with Japanese officials, will not abandon him.
Mindy Kotler, the director of Asia Policy Point, a research center that studies Asian regional security.