Dr. Lester Tenney's Visit to Japan (May 28 - June 6, 2008)

By Yuka Ibuki

Dr. Tenney is the Commander of the American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor (ADBC: national organization of former POWs of the Japanese) and a survivor of the Bataan Death March and three years of forced labor in Mitsui Coal Mine.

Dr. Tenney visited Japan from May 28 to June 6. He came as the last commander of the ADBC, whose members made donations to make his trip possible. “We former US POWs ask the Japanese government and those Japanese companies that used us as slave laborers to establish a foundation to invite former POWs and their families to Japan, just like our British and Dutch friends have been invited, so that mutual understanding, forgiveness, reconciliation and friendship will be enhanced between our two countries.” In order to convey this message, he hoped to have meetings with political leaders and business leaders in Japan as well as to share his POW experience with Japanese people. 

Dr. Tenney gave his first lecture on May 29, hosted by Mr. Director Robert Dujarric, the director of Institute of Contemporary Japanese Studies at the Temple University Japan Campus He explained why the march in Bataan was associated with the word "Death."  It is because of the way POWs died, not because of the number of the deaths. Gunshots in the head, bayonets to the chest, or if it was by an officer, decapitation with a samurai sword. Twelve thousand US soldiers, and 54,000 Filipino soldiers were captured as POWs and there were Filipino citizens who came to Bataan seeking protection by the troops. More than 100,000 began the March, which was a number the Japanese had not expected because of their poor intelligence. 

At the Temple University Japan campus

The US forces were running out of food and ammunition for months prior to the order of surrender on April 9, permitting only as little as 800 calories per day for each soldier in the final stage.  And because of malaria, dysentery and other diseases, the US and Filipino soldiers were weakened. The Japanese didn’t know that. The guards of the march had received the instruction, “If POWs don’t walk, kill them," although Dr. Tenney doesn’t know if this instruction was literally meant. The US and Japanese soldiers didn’t understand each other’s language. When asked, "What was the most horrible experience?" he answered, "It was you had to watch and could do nothing when your friends were killed."

Dr. Tenney enjoys speaking to young people


Dr. Tenney says, “Those who still hate Japanese are still their prisoners.” When someone asked, “How could you forgive?” he told the story of Mr. Toru Tasaka, who the Tenneys call their Japanese son.

In 1966, Dr. Tenney put up the young man just for one night, which extended into 100 nights, and they formed relation like father and son. In 1986,  Dr. Tenney and his wife Betty were invited to Mr. Tasaka's wedding. When Dr. Tenney hugged Mr. Tasaka at the Airport, he realized he had forgiven Japanese.

When Dr. Tenney met with the President of the House of Councilors, Mr. Satsuki Eda, he spoke about his friendship with Mr. Tasaka. "We became so close that my whole idea of Japan and the Japanese changed. All because of one boy. One person made all the difference. I've learned to forgive. I won't  forget, but I've learned that I can be friends and happy with Japanese who one time were not good to me." 

(Photo: With Mr. Toru Tasaka and his wife, Sumiko)

Lecture in Kyoto on May 31 was hosted by three organizations, under the leadership of a researcher Mr. Toru Fukubayashi; Kyoto Society for Learning Peace at War-Related Sites, Kyoto Branch for Support of the Request by Chinese War Victims, and POW Research Network Japan. Dr. Tenney answered a question asking about his faith in God, “God in the Bible Forgives us, and He asks us to forgive. Following His words, I was liberated from hatred.”

(At Ryozen Shinto Shrine with Mr. Fukubayashi )


A former Captain of 14th Army Publicity Section, Mr. Junsuke Hitomi, asked for fifteen minutes, and talked beginning with his heartfelt Sorry for the suffering of Dr. Tenney and other POWs. “The Japanese had to move a far larger number of POWs than they had expected. Japanese soldiers also had been suffering from malaria, dysentery, etc. A few of the guards died every week and the duty was carried on, cremating the dead. Historical investigation of that war as a whole is a project yet to be done.” Listening to the interpretation, Dr. Tenney once inserted a comment, “However, the Japanese soldiers weren't killed as they fell, were they?”

A former Siberian Internee also spoke. He is one of the plaintiffs of a new lawsuit against the Japanese government, seeking an investigation on how the Siberian Internment occurred, and compensation for the slave labor. “In the same desire for peace with that of Dr. Tenney's, we demand for historical investigation so that tragic war will never happen again.”  Dr. Tenney asked for interpretation; “I’m glad others who were involved in the war also expressed their thoughts. The problem is not only with us POWs.”

Koichi Ikeda, a former Siberian Internee sympathized with Dr. Tenney’s op-ed piece in 2001, and they had since formed friendship through the internet.

Delighted with the opportunity to meet Dr. Tenney again, Mr. Ikeda wrote a card and his wife and granddaughter handed the flowers to the Tenneys.

“Snow Balls is the flower for July, birthday of Tenney-san. Thank you for coming to Kyoto!”


Mr. Fumio Yoshida, who had donated many Zentsuji camp photos to our website, also attended.  Mr. Yoshida's photo collection: Photo album of Zentsuji POW camp.htm

        Mr. Hitomi, the Tenneys, the Ikedas, Mr. Yoshida and Ms. Yuka Ibuki

Prior to the lecture, the Tenneys visited the Ryozen Shrine, where there were memorials for the Kyoto Troops , some of which were engaged in the Philippine campaign. They then visited the Ryozen Kwannon, which had the Memorial Hall for the Allied POWs. A copy of the Deceased Allied POWs, which was submitted by the Japanese Government to the UN was dedicated to this Buddhist temple, and there is a drawer which contains all the card records arranged in alphabetical order.

Dr. Tenney struggled with the keys to open the drawer, and at last found two cards of Cigoi and Bronge, two of his fellow POWs who saved his life twice. “I’m very glad I came here. Arigato.”  First, Dr. Tenney received a gash on the shoulder by a Japanese officer’s sword, who came passing on a horseback, swinging the sword. The two friends supported him from both sides for two miles, and a medic sewed the wound while walking. Another time Dr. Tenney was wobbling with fever, and again Bronge and Cigoi supported him for one mile, and he recovered his strength.

On June 3, the “Sea Forum” featuring Dr. Tenney as the speaker was held at the “Memorial Museum; Listen to the Voices from the Sea”, which collects and displays the materials donated by bereaved families of students killed in the war.

The Chairman of the Board, Mr. Hisashi Tezuka guided the Tenneys to see the artifacts, including those left by his Navy classmate who died in Kamikaze mission in the Okinawa campaign.

A Tokyo University professor emeritus asked Dr. Tenney’s opinion on the War in Iraq, the question that was repeatedly asked at other venues. Dr. Tenney, who wanted to focus on his experience and his appeal, replied.  “Let’s personally talk later what I think about the War in Iraq. One thing I would like to tell you, though, is this.  I’m against torture.”     
                                                                                                  With Mr. Tezuka and Mr. Tsutomu Nagata

Mr. Tsutomu Nagata shared his memory as a teenager in Omuta of seeing POWs marching to their daily work in the Mitsui coalmine.

In his book, My Hitch in Hell: The Bataan Death March, we learn that the soldiers in Bataan had the experience of ‘being abandoned’ more than once.

“It’s important to tell them ‘we’re thinking of you, praying for you, and waiting for you’,” he says. The Tenneys have organized a volunteer group in the retirement community where they live and they dispatch 50 boxes a week to Iraq. They receive lists from soldiers on items they want, fill boxes with them, and send out with messages. Soldiers write back with thank you notes. Betty says, “Fortunately none of these we contact has died so far. But one of our sons got sad news.”   

TV news on Dr. Tenney's project: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Diah0uKEFRg

The Tenneys left their comments in the visitors’ notebook at the Musuem; “This Memorial is very meaningful to me. So many young men had to die—it is sad. I am happy I was able to visit this Memorial.  Lester Tenney, former POW”  “We were honored to visit this memorial and understand how sad the families of these young men must have been to lose their children. Betty Tenney”

At the evening lecture of June 4, some Japanese Filipino war veterans spoke among others, to which Tenney responded with a loud “Thank you.”

Mr. Masaichi Matsushita: “I became a POW on April 29, 1945, running out of ammunition to do a Kamikaze attack to the US tank. After treated well in a US POW camp, I was held in New Bilibid as a war criminal suspect. Eventually around 20 of us were moved to an ordinary POW camp. There we were ordered to bear some wood on our back, and, as Christ walked up the hill of Golgotha, were forced to march around the hill of the camp a full day, among the curses of the surrounding former American POWs liberated in Kyushu. Afterwards, one of them beckoned me, and he pushed boxes of Lucky Strike into my pocket. I understood with my sixth sense what he said, ‘A Japanese soldier was very kind to me in Kyushu. As I can’t return his kindness now, let me do this to you on behalf of him.’”

Mr. Toshimi Kumai was sent to Bataan in March 1942 as a machine gun platoon leader, and joined the all-out Assault on April 3.  “After the fall of Bataan, our unit was ordered the first duty of guarding the POWs from Balanga. I was downed with malaria, but the soldiers of the unit including my men were having a hard time, as they had to guard 1,000 POWs with around twenty soldiers. I remember I received reports that they had to pull off the fallen POWs by the roadside (otherwise they’d be flattened by the vehicles), paid tribute to the death with their hands clasped in prayer, and caught up the march. A caption to a photo in the handouts given today says, 'The Japanese forced the Filipino citizens to see the killed US soldiers', and I am surprised to see such an explanation.”

Finally Kinue Tokudome, Executive Director of US-Japan dialogue on POWs, Inc., concluded, "Why has there been no dialogue like this?  I hope today will be the first step of such occasions."

Please read "Prisoners of War" in Mr. Tobias Harris' blog

On the same June 4, Dr. Tenney talked to seven former Internees and one of their wives. They were forced to labor for four years in Siberia or Mongolia. Both groups were anxious, “What would happen tomorrow?” They shared the same worryif the end of their life might come before the end of the war, or the liberation from the internment?  They both were starved and ate anything they could. Exchanging these common experiences, Tenney shouted in Japanese, “Onaji, onaji.(the same, the same.)”  

With former Siberian/Mongolian Internees

“You are cowards for surrendering instead of dying for the US president. You are lower than dogs, and we’ll treat you accordingly for the rest of your life.” (O’Donnell POW Camp Commander’s speech) The Internees didn’t receive that contempt. They say Russians were rather appreciative for their labor. The damaged self-esteem was characteristic to the experience of the Allied POWs. When he returned at the age of 25, Tenney thinks he believed himself lower than dogs. Some of the buddies could not recover their self-esteem, but became an alcoholic, divorced or even committed suicide. He feels that Japan is still treating him and his buddies like lowly dogs by not treating them fairly or the same as they treat other POWs.

Mr. Toshio Kikuchi was shocked to read the Japanese translation of Dr. Tenney’s book, but he was touched by the comments sent to Dr. Tenney by the primary school pupils near the Hodogaya War Cemetery, where he talked in 2001. Dr. Tenney, who remembers the children, happily clapped.

Mr. Shotaro Kinoshita, who was conscripted and sent to China in March 1945 from his home in Fukuoka asked, “In Fukuoka, remains of soy beans after the beans were squeezed to get oil were rationed, and we boiled them to supply little rice we had. Did you have them?” Tenney replied, “We had just rice. Once the guards brought in some dogs they caught, and we ate them.” Only-rice diet caused beri-beri, which still torments the former POWs with pains, sometimes requiring amputation of toes. According to Dr. Tenney’s book, salt was never supplied so they built a salt-gathering contraption from sea-water, so that the POWs could survive the coal mine labor, where they sweated profusely.

Director Terauchi and painter Nagatani Present Tenney with a picture
from All Japanese Association of the Former Internees in Siberia and Mongolia

Essay on Siberian/Mongolia internees

Dr. Tenney gave ten lectures, including to university students and Diet Members, while being interviewed seven times by the media and researchers.  Real, positive and full of love, he succeeded in opening people’s heart, and appealed with articulate words and expressions.

Young reporters eagerly researched and we are grateful for the four articles, a TV news, and a radio recording by an institute affiliated to a university. More are expected to appear in the future.

Asahi  Shimbun article on Dr. Tenney
   Dr. Tenney interviewed in TBS studio 
Japanese war veterans involved in the Philippine campaign were full of desire to talk, and have Americans listen to their stories. After coming home, Tenney said on the phone, “I’m glad we got together and talked about the same war we were in.” Betty Tenney cheerfully supported the team with kind thoughtfulness, making it possible all through the hard schedule. Our heartfelt thanks go to Lester & Betty Tenney, and to all that helped in sending them to Japan. We will do our best to help Dr. Tenney who appealed to the Japanese people to work together to promote understanding and friendship. 

Dr Tenney appealing to Upper House President Satsuki Eda and Upper House members
Mr. Azuma Konno and Mr. Yukihisa Fujita to work together on the POW issue