Mr. Joe Alexander was the National Commander of the American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor from 2000 to 2001 and again from 2006 to 2007. He was most likely one of the youngest POWs of the Japanese. Starting in the 1990s, he returned to Japan several times and visited the sites of the former POW camps where he was interned. His visit to the Omori prison camp site was featured in Stars and Stripes.
“I'm satisfied,” he said quietly after regaining his composure. “I’ve seen what I came for.” He was particularly glad to discover a memorial shrine honoring those who lived and died in the prison camp. The memorial is focused around a large stature of Kannon , a Buddhist symbol of compassion.
Quiet words spill out in clusters as Alexander struggles to
talk about his yeas as a POW.
These are not good memories. But Alexander says more
than two years of postwar physical and psychiatric treatment and
especially, 10 years of attending annual reunions of former POWs, have
helped him come to terms with experiences he says only people who’ve
endured them can understand.
the Omori camp site
Interview with Mr. Joe Alexander
You were only 15 years old when you became a POW. How could this be possible?
I was 14 years old when I got into service in San Antonio, Texas in July of 1941. I took my grandmother to the recruiting office. She could not speak English, but they told me that she could shake her head up and down to mean "Yes" and sideway to mean "No." When they asked her if I was old enough to join the service, I told her to shake her head up and down. She did, and that's how I got into service.
Then I was sent to Albuquerque, New Mexico to be trained as an Army Air Corps maintenance ordnance technician. I was there about 2 months and then went to Angel Island in San Francisco. We went aboard on a Army transport ship and arrived in the Philippines in October of 1941.
Then the Pearl Harbor attacked came and the war started. We went to Mindanao and they found out that I was 15 years old. They decided to send me back to the States, but the ship that was to take me back to the States was bombed by the Japanese. That's how I was stuck in the Philippines.
After becoming a POW, I was sent to Japan and forced to work at a steel mill in Kawasaki. I was later sent to the Omori POW camp and liberated there.
What do you remember most about those days?
Every day, we went to work in the morning before daylight and worked all day. And some nights, we were made to stand for attention all night long. We had to go to work next morning, no sleep. If you didn't do it, they would beat you with a rifle butt.
How old were you when the war ended?
I was 18 years old. But it was on August 25, two days after my 19th birthday, that I was released from the POW camp.
I understand that you recently went back to Kawasaki and visited the steel mill company to receive an apology. Could you share that story?
Yes. It was in 2003. There were two Japanese friends whom I had met during my previous visits to Japan. Ms. Nori Nagasawa was a researcher on the POW history and Mr. Yuichi Hatto was the former guard of the Omori camp. He was one of the "good guards."
I told them that I was going to go the steel mill in Kawasaki to get me an apology from the President for my wartime slave labor there. Both of my friends said that I had to have an appointment. I said, "No, they will see me." So I went to Kawasaki and at the gate of the steel mill asked to go in. The guard did not understand English. Then an American came out and asked what I wanted. I said I wanted to speak to the President. He went in and then two Japanese men came out. They spoke a little English, gave me a badge and took me into a conference room. The Japanese men sat with an interpreter. I explained to them that I was an ex-POW and that I had done slave labor at the steel mill. I said to them that I wanted an apology.
The President was not there that day. I told them that I had to leave to catch a bus to go back to Sanno Hotel where I was staying. They said, "No, no," and put me in a cab and sent me back to the hotel. They wanted to know if I would be back again and I said I would come back the following month.
So I went back again. All these gentlemen were sitting around the table in the conference room. We had tea and cookies. The interpreter was there and we talked again. The President was sitting there, but said nothing. They asked if I would be coming back again. I said, "Yes, I do want an apology." They paid for my taxi to Sanno Hotel again.
So the third time I went back, I brought pictures with me. Those were pictures of atrocities that Japanese guards had done to American POWs in the prison camps. The President of the steel mill was sitting at the end of the table with other Japanese men. I think his name was Mr. Yamamoto and he appeared to be in his 50s. I told the interpreter that these were real pictures, not Hollywood movie pictures. The Japanese men passed these pictures around to Mr. Yamamoto. Their eyes got real big and they just couldn't believe it.
Then I asked the interpreter to tell Mr. Yamamoto that some of the
civilians working at the steel mill were trying to help us. They were good
to us. When I told them that, it changed the whole situation. Mr. Yamamoto
said, "I can not give you a written apology." I said, "I understand, but I
would like to have an apology."
So they talked for a while in Japanese and the interpreter said to me, "Mr. Yamamoto will apologize to you. " Mr. Yamamoto stood up at the end of the table and bowed towards me. " The interpreter said to me, "Mr. Yamamoto is saying that he is sorry for the slave labor and the way you were mistreated although he could not give you a written apology."
I started crying because I got what I wanted. I could tell that he was sincere.
How did the President and other Japanese people react when you cried?
From their faces and their expression I could see that they realized how important the apology was to me. They knew that I took the apology as sincere one.
Were you satisfied?
After I got the apology, it tore me all up, and it made me feel so good to know that I did get an apology and that the man was so sincere in his apology. It changed me a whole lot, I was really really satisfied and I left there a different person. As far as the Japanese people I have nothing against them. I've got a lot of friends who are Japanese people.
I saw tears well up in Mr. Alexander's eyes as he recounted his having cried upon receiving the apology. I could not help but wonder what impact, if any, his tears had made on the Japanese people at the steel mill company in Kawasaki.
Given the pending POW forced labor lawsuits at that time, it was understandable that the company President could not issue a written apology to Mr. Alexander. Still, I was encouraged to learn that he decided to apologize orally. I hope that the experience was as positive to him as it was to Mr. Alexander. (Interviewer: Kinue Tokudome)