Local POW Stunned His Call Was Answered

An unusual bond heals wounds over Japan's WWII POWs

By Elliot Spagat
|  Saturday, Sep 11, 2010  |  Updated 10:30 AM PDT
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Local POW Stunned His Call Was Answered

AP

U.S. Army World War II veteran Lester I. Tenney.

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Lester Tenney was stunned to receive a call that Japan's new ambassador to the United States would see him. He had tried for years to seek an apology from Japanese officials for the atrocities he witnessed and endured as a prisoner of war during World War II.

His letters and calls seeking justice and reconciliation were routinely ignored.

Then, on Veterans Day 2008, more than 63 years after the end of the war, Tenney was visiting Arlington National Cemetery when word finally came. The Japanese embassy was closed for the holiday, so Ichiro Fujisaki invited the former POW to his home. The two men and their wives sipped tea. The ambassador asked how he might help.

The unexpected rapprochement led to friendship, and to Sunday's trip to Japan by a group of American POWs, including Tenney. Although Japan has hosted former POWs from other nations since 1995, it will be the country's first ever sponsored trip aimed at reconciling with American POWs.

Tenney says he plans to bow to the Japanese out of respect and courtesy for the first time as he meets with lawmakers and foreign ministry officials, not out of fear as he did during the war.

"It's going to mean we're finally treated like first-class citizens," Tenney said at his home in a gated retirement community near San Diego, a fountain gurgling in his small Japanese garden.

At 90, Tenney remains a barrel-chested raconteur with a booming voice and sharp wit.

Fujisaki, 63, was born two years after the war ended. He had been on the job only five months, but knew that Tenney had not received any response from Japanese officials.

"This request came and we thought, 'Why not, if this gentleman wants to meet us?"' the ambassador said in an interview with The Associated Press.

The conversation had been welling in Tenney since April 9, 1942, when the United States surrendered on the Philippines' Bataan Peninsula, ending a four-month battle. Thousands died walking for days in tropical heat to prison camp.

Tenney doesn't remember how many prisoners he saw beheaded, killed by bayonet or shot to death on the infamous Bataan Death March -- dozens, perhaps more than 100. Many more died in the next few weeks from disease.

He told the ambassador that he saw a Japanese guard order two Americans to bury a malaria-stricken mate alive because he was too weak to stand. When they refused, the guard shot one dead. The next Americans pulled from the line buried both soldiers -- one dead, one alive and screaming.

"When you have to watch your own friends get killed and you have to stand there and can't do a thing, it is awful," Tenney said in a later interview, his voice shaking with emotion. "It stays with you forever."

For three years, Tenney worked 12-hour days in a Japanese coal mine, watching men die in droves from disease. He ate only three small bowls of rice a day. He remembers an American medic who amputated limbs with a steak knife, without anesthetics.

Tenney told the ambassador that afternoon that he had three wishes: an apology from the Japanese government, an apology from Japanese companies that enslaved the POWs, and a government-paid trip to Japan for American POWs.

After darkness fell, Fujisaki opened the taxi door for the Tenneys. The ambassador's wife kissed them goodbye.

As the men exchanged letters over the next few months, Tenney began pressing the ambassador to say a few words at the last annual convention of American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor in May 2009. The group was disbanding after 63 years because too few veterans remained.

Fujisaki wavered until the last day. He said he decided to go only after Tenney stopped insisting that he deliver good news to the former POWs, that his presence would be enough.

The ambassador wrote his remarks on the flight to San Antonio. He brought a copy of a 1995 speech in which Japan Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama acknowledged widespread damage that the Japanese military caused during the war. Fujisaki thought he could quote Murayama's speech directly, even though it did not mentioned POWs.

"You're entering a lion's den," Tenney told the ambassador as they neared the podium.

The speech that followed was unprecedented,

Fujisaki said Japan's regrets over World War II extended to its treatment of POWs, including those captured in Bataan. It was the first -- and still the only -- time that a Japanese official has explicitly apologized to POWs.

The ambassador, who spent a year of junior high school in Seattle and attended Brown and Stanford universities, said he consulted no one in Tokyo about the remarks.

"I felt that we should not miss that opportunity," he said.

About half the audience of 500 people -- 70 POWs and the rest descendants -- gave him a standing ovation, while others jeered or stayed silent, according to Tenney.

After lunch in his hotel room, Fujisaki told Tenney that he was trying to arrange a trip to Japan for the POWs. Foreign ministry officials say Fujisaki was instrumental in getting Japan to earmark 18 million yen ($213,000) in March for the visit.

Japan has previously hosted POWs from Britain, Australia and the Netherlands. Fujisaki says he has no idea why it took so long to invite the Americans. Tenney suspects resentment over the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki contributed to the delay.

Tenney, who taught accounting and finance at San Diego State and Arizona State universities after the war, worked with the U.S. State Department to pick the 14-member delegation. The first 10 POWs he called were unfit to travel, so he created a raffle.

The final count for the eight-day trip starting Sunday is six POWs and six of their relatives, plus two daughters of POWs who died.

 After a short time in Tokyo, each POW will travel to a city of his choice. Some will visit the factories, docks or mines where they worked.

Tenney and his wife of 50 years, Betty, won't visit his old mine or the former employer who has ignored his requests to meet. The mine operator, formerly Mitsui Mining Co. and now Nippon Coke and Engineering Co., did not return calls seeking comment.

Fujisaki, who isn't going on the trip, said he cannot force Japanese companies to participate -- the only one of Tenney's three wishes he didn't satisfy.

The Tenneys will instead visit the grave of a Japanese man in Matsuyama who stayed with them as an exchange student in San Diego in 1968 and became a close friend. The Tenneys went to Japan for the man's wedding in 1988 and joined the newlyweds on their honeymoon.

The first thing that Fujisaki mentioned when asked to recall his initial meeting with Tenney was how the former POW described his friendship with the Japanese man, Toru Tasaka, who was dying of cancer at the time.

"My wife was very moved and had tears in her eyes," the ambassador said.

Tenney says his friend taught him not to hate the Japanese people, but he still resented the government.

The former POW thought of a prison camp officer who shouted that Japan would treat the American prisoners like dogs for the rest of their lives.

"Over the years asking for a meeting and asking for different things and getting nothing, it made me feel that the Japanese still felt the same way," Tenney said, "that we were lower than dogs and we were cowards."

Next week's visit, though, means that change has at long last come.

"By going there next week, it's an indication that I'm going to go with my head held high."

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