The Search for My Father
Mary-Anne Hansen Stickney
I’m writing in memory of my father, Peter Wales Hansen. He was taken from his family while they were young. Harriet was 10, John was 8, I, Mary-Anne was 6 and his loving wife, our mother, Bernice Kurtzweil Hansen. I want my children and grandchildren to have a record of how their grandfather was buried in a mass grave with 99 others soldiers of many nations. Even in this year of 2004, it’s hard for people who did not experience WWII to understand.
Peter was born in Green Bay, Wisconsin on March ５, 1901. He met my mother in Rhinelander, Wisconsin while they both worked for Mr. Daniels who owned the Daniels Paper Mill. They married in Portland, OR in 1930. Dad did many things well and in the days of the Great Depression, a man worked where he could for as long as the jobs lasted. He was a private pilot in his spare time and loved to fly. So much so that their home was always near an airport.
We three children were all born in Rhinelander, Wisconsin, from 1931 to 1934. Sometime in the late 30’s we moved to Inglewood, Calif. Dad was an independent contractor building homes in the Los Angeles area. Sometime in the late 30’s he built his family a two bedroom home with a 2 car garage in what was then a rural area near a small airport called Miner’s Field. Much later that small airport became LAX .
My father was a fun loving man who loved his little family dearly. Mom said they always had company and I remember dad playing the piano and singing to us and with us on the player piano.
When he came home from work he would lift me up in the air and call me his Monkey. I tell you this because these are the few memories of a little girl that grew up without her loving daddy.
Dad went to Wake Island in March, 1941 as a civilian carpenter for the Morrison Knudsen Company, one of the companies that made up Contractors Pacific Naval Air Bases who were building military bases in the Pacific on the Islands of Cavite, Guam, Johnston, Midway, Palmyra and Wake. His contract was for 9 months. If he stayed to complete the 9 months, he not only would get a big bonus but would be guaranteed a job with Morrison Knudsen for his lifetime. This was important to men experiencing hard to find jobs during the Great Depression. We expected him to be home for Christmas. His last letters told of plans for arriving home, buying Christmas presents for his children, promising his sweet wife all the shoes she wanted and she could pick out the new car they’d buy. He wrote to his wife every day describing his work and the conditions on the tiny island as they improved. Even though there was a danger in the air, his letters revealed that he would stay to finish his contract commitment, confident that he would be home before any hostile action between Japan and the USA---if that should happen. He was to leave for home on December 23, 1941.
On a sleepy Sunday morning, December 7, 1941, the Japanese staged a massive surprise attacked against the United States at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii destroying and damaging many of the warships. It was Monday December 8th on Wake Is., a normal work-day due to the International Date Line. Within hours Japanese attacked Wake Is by air. The battle of Wake Island is a much documented battle. There were less than 500 Marines, only a dozen Grumman Wildcat fighters and about 1200 civilians. This tiny force repelled the first invasion of the Japanese Navy by sea but was overwhelmed by much larger enemy forces and fatigue on December 23rd. After a gallant fight, the men Wake Island surrender to the Japanese.
We were notified by telegram that Dad was presumed captured on Wake by the Japanese and there was no further information. Mother wrote many times seeking information of his physical condition and his whereabouts, all to no avail. The authorities had no information on any of the men. The Japanese government did not answer their repeated requests and demands to account for the men on the island.
It wasn’t until April 1944, over 3 years later that we received the first of three very short letters from Dad from Fukuoka POW Camp #1. He received at least two of mother’s letters. The war ended in Aug 1945 after two Atomic bombs destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Weeks later, our family had received no word of my father’s whereabouts or if he was still alive or dead. Mother sent many letters to the authorities searching for news.
Then the letter from the Department of the Navy came. It was dated Oct 12, 1945 informing us of Dad’s death on March 21, 1945 and his ashes “placed in a memorial at Fukuoka, Japan.”
In the year 2000, mother was in her nineties living with my sister, Harriet, in Southern California. I came to stay with mother while my sister went on vacation. I was going through some old papers when I came across that letter from the Navy. Mom was a good secretary and saved carbon copies of all her correspondence with the authorities from 1941 to well into the 50’s. She also saved all of the newsletters from the Woman of Wake during those years documenting the struggle to receive financial support for the families and to receive those last paychecks and bonuses that stopped in December 1941.
I was 66 years old and thought many times that I would like to go to Wake Is and walked where Dad walked and even fly to Japan to see where the POW camps were located. In the war years, I cried for my father. I wanted him home cradling me with his big, strong arms.
At home now rereading the Navy’s letter, it was as if I had read it for the first time. “…ashes placed in a memorial at Fukuoka, Japan.” The letter was dated Oct 12, 1945. I was thinking “that’s pretty quick to put up a memorial with everything else going on.” Now I was determined to go to Fukuoka to see the memorial that would give me closure with my father’s death. Wouldn’t it be nice if I could find where Dad’s ashes lie so mother and my siblings would at last know. This idea was never voiced in my family. It was an unspoken longing in my heart to find the father I grew up without.
But first I needed to find out exactly where the memorial was in the city of Fukuoka. I immediately picked up the phone to call the Japanese Consulate in Houston and was given Major Moran, who was familiar with the Japanese city. Major Moran is an American civilian working in the security force at the Consulate in Houston, Texas. I told him about the Navy’s letter, that mother was in her nineties and my plans to fly to Japan seeking closure. He assured me there was no such memorial. The only memorial there was a stone wall where the Doolittle pilots were shot. I told him, “then the U.S. Navy lied to us and I want to know where my father’s ashes are!” He said he would do everything he could to help me but it had been a long time and the Japanese government has never been cooperative with information about POWs. Our government was concentrating on the MIA’s in Viet Nam and Korea. The books on WWII POW’s were closed. Major Moran said he would try to get some information from Japan and Washington but not to get my hopes up.
Major Moran took to the internet and so did I. I found information about an organization called Survivors of Wake-Guam-Cavite . This was a group of civilian workers that survived their ordeal as POWs. I wrote to them immediately asking for any information about Peter W. Hansen or anyone who remembered him. I contacted American Ex-Prisoners of War based in Arlington, TX and received their MED SEARCH information. This was written by M. D.s who were also POW and understood the effects of starvation on the bodies organs and the illnesses it can cause over a lifetime.
In October 2000 I started receiving letters from men of Wake. Rodney Kephart, Frank Mace, J.O. Young, Joe Astorita, who made sketches of the guards, shoes, camps, etc. were just some that I made contact. Mr. Kephart and Mace wrote books that I devoured for information of what happened to my father and his fellow POWs.
As I talked to each of these men who so gladly and freely told me of their experiences and answered my questions, I began to learn what happened to the men; when they left the island and where they went. And each survivor said they remembered my father. They knew his occupation and home town but very little else. Early in 1942 all able bodied military men and all but 350 civilians were transported to Shanghi. In October, 1942 a group of about 250 civilians were transported to Japan to build a dam at Sasabo. The remaining 98 were later executed on the Island. Each of the men of whom I spoke, claimed my dad was with their group.
Their books and many others I’ve since read about POW’s of the Japanese told of the horror of their existence; the beatings, their living conditions, food, the freezing cold with no winter clothing, the illnesses, lack of medicines and treatment etc. Before this time, I had no knowledge of the cruelty they suffered for so long. I was horrified at what they went through. What determination and sheer will these men had just to survive each day. God made strong bodies to endure such abuse and yet live on for many years.
Most of the surviving men were in there early twenties when they went to Wake. My father was 40 years old. That may have been a factor in his death although he died just 5 months before the war ended.
June Fabian, the Survivor’s group long time secretary, sent me excerpts from the diary kept by Lee W. Wilcox listing the deaths at Camp #18 at Sasbo as well as a list of deaths by Rev. Oreal Johnson. June is the widow of a survivor and knows the history of most of the men.
In September, I contacted Major Moran to see if there was some news. He sent me an article stating the Australian War Graves Group filled two urns with POW ashes recovered from “two of the camps of war centered at Fukuoka” One contained ashes of 200 British POWs, 50 American and 20 Netherlanders. That urn is in the United Kingdom section of the Commonwealth War Cemetery near Yokohama. The other urn, containing mostly American ashes, was sent to Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis, Missouri.
A few days into October, I wrote to Jefferson Barracks on a Friday inquiring if my father’s ashes could possibly be there. The following Tuesday, I put dinner on the table and for some reason excused myself to check my email. An e-mail was waiting for me from Randy Watkins of Jefferson Barracks saying my father was indeed there! “OH MY GOD, I HAD FOUND HIM! I FOUND MY DAD!” I was so excited I could hardly read the message! There were two pictures attached; the picture of the large headstone listing 100 men from different nations and a close-up of Dad’s name. I still cry when I think of seeing ‘Peter W. Hansen, Civ’ on the screen.
After 55 years of not even knowing what happened to him, where he was, how he died, we found his ashes and they were in the United States! It was a miracle. I quickly called my sister, knowing Mom was there and my brother was visiting that week. And I immediately forwarded the email and pictures so they could see them too. It was a complete surprise to them since I didn’t tell them I was even searching. They were a bit stunned. I was anxious to get mother’s reaction which came a few days later. Mom was glad that Dad’s ashes were in the States but it had been too many years. She had no desire to visit the grave.
Although my family had not moved from the address that was listed on my father’s official records, we were never notified of his remains being re-interned in US soil.
In early November 2000, I went to St. Louis to my father’s grave. It was a beautiful autumn day. I sat on the ground and just wept over my daddy’s grave. Those years forever gone. How much I missed him. My life would have been so different had he returned. How different? We’ll never know but I can’t help but feel it would have been more complete. It’s strange how the pain of grief can hurt so deeply after so many years. It’s as if the grief were fresh---as if he died just yesterday. The tears of a 10 yr old were shed freely. I cried for the good years that might have been, I cried for the pain of separation and the horror he lived surviving each day with hope of returning to us--- hanging on until he could hang on no longer.
To my surprise, the discovery of Dad’s ashes did not bring the closure I was seeking. My search was not over. Now I wanted to know what happened to dad from the time he left Wake in Oct 1942 until he died in March 1945. Where did he go ? what did he do? What caused his death? I wanted the truth, even if the details of POW life were too horrible to bare. I wanted the truth and my brother wanted to know too. The answers I found through Major Moran’s contact in Japan with a American teaching English living near Fukuoka. He had heard about the POW camps and started some research. Through my contact with Wes Injerd, and his research into the National Archives, he found the dates and places Dad had been. He also provided me with Dad’s death certificate in both Japanese and English. Most of all, he found an affidavit written by an American doctor, Major Walter Kostecki, at Fukuoka Camp #1 who documented the real reason for his death. Wes had lived in Japan for 26 years and had a lovely family with four children growing up fast.
Meanwhile, I made several inquires into the National Archives with no success. Then I was notified that there was a complete war-trial transcript of the Japanese soldier that was responsible for my father’s death.!!! A WAR CRIMES TRIAL??? Again, I was in shock at what I found, Our family did not know of the trial of Masato Hada. There was even a picture of him in the transcript. Hada was tried and found guilty of war crimes against sick and weakened POWs including withholding medications, beating them and other heinous acts causing their deaths. The transcript brought out all the details.
So now I knew the truth, the horrible truth about what happened to my gentle father, whose only crime was loving his young family enough to go to a tiny island in the Pacific to work for their welfare. He stayed on that island with the promise that if completed his 9 month contract honorably, he would not be without work again.
On November 11, 2002, my sister, Harriet and brother, John, and I traveled to St. Louis, MO to attend the annual Remembrance Day ceremony. It is held at the mass grave site of 100 heroes who died while in captivity during the period July 1944 through April 1945 in a Japanese Prison Camp or camps, in the Fukuoka Region of the Island of Kyushu. On the 28th of September 1949, 59 United States Soldiers, Sailors and Marines and 12 civilians; and 29 men of the British, Dutch and Australian military, were re-interned at Jefferson Barracks Nation Cemetery. A military man from each country laid a wreathe on the large, flat, granite stone and I laid a wreathe for my father and all the civilians. We attending on this special day were standing in the gap for those loved ones living too far away to attend or those who did not know where there loved ones were. It was very meaningful and clearly honored these men who paid the ultimate price for their countries.
At last, I found closure.
Forgiveness Requires Great Strength and Compassion
first came in contact with Mary-Anne in July of 2000 through an email
from Major Moran. He told of a daughter searching for her father who
died in Fukuoka during WWII. I immediately went to work searching for
the name "Peter Hansen" in my growing collection of archives, and the
rest of the story is history. It was because of Mary-Anne's search that
I dedicated my own website to her father.
I had mixed emotions as I worked on the Hansen story-- angry that the Japanese had done this, yet understanding the wartime conditions in Japan; sad at what had happened to the Hansen family, yet happy that the truth had finally been discovered. It was hard for me to conceive that the very people among whom I had been living for the past 26 years could be capable of such inhumane behavior, especially toward someone who wasn't even in the military and not even directly fighting against them.
This is perhaps one of the hardest things to understand in life -- Why has this terrible event happened to me? Why is life so unfair? What did I do to deserve this?
Mary-Anne surely felt this a hundred times as she read document after document to discover the truth about her father's death. Yet she never let it make her bitter toward the Japanese, even though all of the "why's" were left unanswered.
It requires great strength and compassion to forgive offenses against those dear to yourself. As a Christian, I believe this is one of the greatest ways to heal the wounds of the past -- through love and forgiveness, just as Christ forgave those who committed the greatest offense of all against Himself.
My hope and prayer is that the people of Japan and the United States will learn this vital element, the application of which will greatly speed up the healing process and real closure.
daughter's trip to Japan
Mary-Anne Stickney recently visited the site of Fukuoka POW camp #1 in Japan for the first time. Her father, Peter Hansen, was an American civilian worker captured by the Japanese military on Wake Island in December of 1941. He was brought to Japan and made to work for dam construction in Sasebo. He almost survived the war but died on March 21, 1945. A Japanese soldier who was responsible for his death was tried and found guilty of war crimes against sick and weakened POWs including withholding medications, beating them, and other heinous acts.
When Mary-Anne visited the site of the POW camp in Fukuoka where her father died, there was nothing to remind people that a POW camp once stood there and that 147 POWs died there. It was just a small empty lot in a wooded area.
Mary-Anne made a cross with twigs she picked up and placed a little flower she had brought with her in front of it. No memorial or a plaque... Only a little twig cross she herself made... That was how she paid tribute to her father exactly 63 years to the date of his death in Japan.
She also went to the hill overlooking the port of Moji where tens of thousands of Allied POWs arrived after being transported on Hellships. Again, nothing to remind of the horrific voyages that POWs endured.
Mary-Anne shared with me her reflection on her visit to the place where her father lived and died as a POW.
I am glad I went. No
it wasn't all sad. I was in awe that I was there in Japan where my dad
was. To be walking on the same ground where he walked. Just mostly
quietly absorbing the air and the feeling his presence and a sense of
wonder how anyone could have survived.
I certainly shed tears at the dam as I thought of the icy winds with few clothes, the empty stomachs, extreme hours of hard labor and the beatings. How did they endure this day after day after day? Then of course under the pines, knowing he died on that day 63 years before. He held on until he could no longer.
But we can rejoice that my dad is in heaven walking with Jesus and singing praises with the angels! That's the real victory, the triumph.
The other sense of my trip was to be with the Japanese people. I have
never held any animosity against the people. -- The Japanese government
and military, however, is another story. I saw more sameness than
difference between our cultures.
Dr. Lester Tenney has already proposed an honorable resolution--creating a foundation by the Japanese government and the Japanese companies that enslaved POWs during WWII. Such a foundation can invite American ex-POWs and their families to Japan, just as the Japanese government has been inviting ex-POWs and families of other former Allied countries. A joint research on the POW history can be started so that Japanese people will learn about what took place at nearly 130 POW camps scattered throughout Japan during WWII. People from both countries may eventually build a memorial on the hill of Moji someday.
Such an effort could go a long way to heal old wounds and to bring people of the United States and Japan closer.
(posted on Ausgut15, 2008)