POW Forced Labor: In Search of an Honorable Closure
"If you don’t mind, please tell us how our wartime colleagues treated you because we want to learn."
It was a magical moment when these words were uttered by Takashi Toriyama, the Director of Japan Metals & Chemicals Co. (JMC)’s Takaoka Works. I
immediately realized the significance of his words and how much they meant to
two aging former POWs who made the long trip from the U.S. to this small city near
the Sea of Japan to visit the company.
Their twelve hour-a-day work was grueling—shoveling, mixing of ore, and carrying the ore to open furnaces without any safety measures. Very little food and medical care was provided. Any violation of the rules met with severe punishment. By the end of the war, eleven American POWs and two British POWs had died due to the horrible conditions.
Bergbower and Collier were among seven former American POWs who were invited to Japan through the Japanese/POW Friendship Program (a program started in 2010 with the goal of promoting mutual understanding between the people of Japan and the U.S.) funded by the Japanese government. The delegation had just arrived in Japan two days earlier on October 16, each being accompanied by one family member.
Both Bergbower and Collier had reservations on returning to their former campsite as the memories of their hardship still haunted them after more than 66 years. They did not know how they would react upon returning to Takaoka and meeting with JMC’s officials. But Bergbower had decided that he would meet the succeeding generation of Japan and the new management of the company in hopes that such dialogue would help him put his ill feelings from the past behind him. Indeed, he had come back to Japan in the mid-50s as a member of the U.S. Air Force to train the newly created Japan Air Self-Defense Force. He and his family had enjoyed their stay in Japan, but could not bring himself to visit Takaoka as the memory of being a forced laborer was still too painful.
Collier, a retired teacher and guidance counselor, was torn over his decision as to whether he should join the program. Would he have a flashback of the moment when he thought he was about to be executed? Would he be able to control his emotions? But in the end, like Bergbower, he decided to give the visit a chance with the hope of some good coming out of it.
Now, with this question posed by Mr. Toriyama, these two men found themselves in an almost inconceivable position. An official of the successor company to the one that had enslaved them wanted to learn and hear how his predecessors had treated them! It seemed that all the reservations and trepidations they had had before the trip disappeared at this crucial moment.
Coincidentally, internment and slave labor struck close to home for Mr. Toriyama. His late father, who was interned in Siberia after WWII, had also been forced to perform hard labor in very harsh conditions. When he learned from the Japanese Foreign Ministry about the possibility of two former POWs wanting to visit his company, his response was certain. He confessed to Bergbower and Collier that he felt as if they were his own father. How could he not want to meet them and listen to their stories?
Debra Bergbower-Grunwald, the daughter of Bergbower, described what followed this initial exchange at JMC when she spoke at the National Press Club in Tokyo a few days later:
politicians do is formal. But the true peace that I saw on Tuesday and the
friendship that happened between generations—between the generation from the
Japanese Metals Company in Takaoka, Toyama, and these two gentlemen, Mr. Jim
Collier and my father Harold Bergbower, sitting down at a small table, drawing a
diagram, and discussing what the camp history was in 1944. And those men
laughing and talking and communicating—that was where the friendship was. This
was the peace that happened on Tuesday afternoon. And this peace of mind helped
and is helping my father at the age of 91. I want to thank the Japanese
government for helping my father with this.
What led up to this magical moment? What made this remarkable trip possible?
During World War II, some 27,000 American soldiers became POWs of the Japanese, of which 40 percent perished while in captivity. Many died while being forced to work for some 60 private Japanese companies such as Mitsui, Mitsubishi, Sumitomo, Nippon Steel, Kawasaki, and Hitachi. Yet there has been very little effort to promote understanding and dialogue on the history of American POWs of the Japanese between the people of the two nations, at least until recently.
But it is well known among those who were interested in the history of Allied POWs of the Japanese that the Japanese government has been inviting former British and Dutch POWs to Japan for many years to promote reconciliation. According to an official report the Japanese government has conducted the following programs between 1995 and 2005:
Invited 784 former British
POWs and their families (approximately $7.5 million spent)
The report further mentioned that these programs would continue as they might deem necessary. Indeed, the Japanese government kept spending a substantial amount of money on the continuation of these programs past 2005.
But former American POWs were completely excluded from these programs for almost fifteen years, even though they suffered very similar experience at the hands of the Japanese.
In early 2006, I twice asked the Japanese Embassy in Washington D.C. about this exclusion. I received a reply dated on May 17, 2006, which stated:
While our feelings of deep remorse and heartfelt apology are no different towards British, Dutch and American POWs, the circumstance surrounding the POWs are different with each country and no similar program currently exists for the former American POWs.
This was the beginning of the pursuit for equal treatment for former American POWs. A free trip to Japan was of little consequence to them. What infuriated these former POWs the most was the way they were again treated by the Japanese as unworthy of respect. They were reminded of what they had been told by the Japanese military in the Philippines—“You are lower than a dog.”
Dr. Lester Tenney, a survivor of the infamous Bataan Death March and one of the leaders of the American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor, a national organization of former POWs of the Japanese, started writing letters to anyone he thought could help rectify this unfair treatment of American POWs—the President, the American ambassador to Japan, the Secretary of State, members of Congress, the Japanese Prime Minister, Japanese Foreign Ministry officials, members of the Japanese Diet, and many media outlets in both countries.
For several years, nothing ensued, although some members of the Japanese Diet became sympathetic to Dr. Tenney’s fight. In June of 2008, Dr. Tenney traveled to Japan to personally appeal to Japanese politicians and the Japanese people. While he was able to meet with some members of the Japanese Diet and received good publicity in Japan, his request for a meeting with a representative of the Japanese government was declined.
Finally, a breakthrough came on Veterans Day, 2008 when Dr. Tenney was invited by Japanese ambassador Ichiro Fujisaki to his official residence in Washington D.C. Why it happened when it happened is probably unimportant. All that mattered is that Dr. Tenney, now the last National Commander of the American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor (the organization was to be disbanded the following year due to dwindling membership and failing health of surviving POWs) finally met an official representative of the Japanese government. It took 63 years for this meeting to take place.
Dr. Tenney always believed in face-to-face dialogue. He knew that the best way to deal with Ambassador Fujisaki was to be himself. No strategy was needed. He simply requested three things:
1) An apology from the
The ambassador promised that he would relay these requests to Tokyo and get back to Dr. Tenney, to which Dr. Tenney responded, “Even if the answers are negative, I would rather know them soon. Please do not keep me waiting long.” Once this exchange was made, the two men quickly developed what an AP article later described as an "Unusual bond."
The Japanese government offered to apologize the next month. Ambassador Fujisaki’s letter to Dr. Tenney stated:
We extend a heartfelt apology for our country having caused tremendous damages and suffering to many people, including those who have undergone tragic experiences in the Bataan Peninsula and Corregidor Island in the Philippines.
And on May 30, 2009, Ambassador
Fujisaki personally delivered his country’s apology
at the last convention of the American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor held
in San Antonio. This apology was approved by the Japanese Cabinet and was the
very first apology specifically offered to U.S. POWs by the Japanese government.
Dr. Tenney’s first request was fulfilled.
The first delegation for the Japanese/POW Friendship Program led by Dr. Tenney arrived in Japan on September 22, 2010 for a week-long stay. Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada met with the delegation of six former POWs and said in front of reporters of both Japanese and foreign media:
You have all been through hardships during World War II, being taken prisoner by the Japanese military, and suffered extremely inhumane treatment. On behalf of the Japanese government and as the foreign minister, I would like to offer you my heartfelt apology.
Dr. Tenney’s last remaining request, an apology from the companies that enslaved American POWs, was not fulfilled even after he suggested that Keidanren (Japan Business Federation) issue a collective apology. (Dr. Tenney and Kinue Tokudome's op-ed in Mainichi Shimbun) Most companies that had used POWs for forced labor belong to Keidanren. Yet Keidanren was silent while the POW delegation was in Japan and never seized the opportunity to make amends.
Still, there were some encouraging signs. Showa Denko in Kawasaki accepted a visit by two members of the delegation, Ed Jackfert and Joe Alexander, while Ishihara Sangyo in Yokkaichi also welcomed Earl Szwabo. Although no clear apology was offered by either company, their willingness to meet former POWs was a welcome occurrence and clear distinction from the silence of all other companies and Keidanren.
Building upon last year’s historic first trip, this year’s delegation was upbeat about their trip to Japan. The leader of the group, Robert Vogler (90), expressed his admiration many times, saying, "This trip is beyond my expectation. The Japanese people are so kind to us. I cannot believe that it ever took place."
But while Mr. Bergbower and Mr. Collier received a warm welcome in Takaoka, a request for a visit by two other members of the delegation was declined by the successor company to Mitsui Mining, at whose coal mine they had been forced to work.
From the beginning, monetary compensation had never been the main goal for these former POWs in pursuing these companies. Dr. Tenney was one of the plaintiffs that sought unpaid wages from them a decade ago. It had initially been their hope that forthright acknowledgment would come if these companies were held legally accountable for restitution of these former slave laborers. But the highest courts of both the U.S. and Japan have ruled that there was no legal responsibility for the Japanese companies to compensate their WWII POW forced laborers because of the peace treaty. Former POWs accepted that decision.
Yet, they have continued to seek acknowledgment from these companies on the basis of moral responsibility.
The German forced labor foundation, Remembrance, Responsibility and Future serves as a commendable example of what could be possible. The foundation was not established based on the legal responsibility of Germany for their World War II forced labor, but on their willingness to take moral responsibility for it. The U.S. government was heavily involved in facilitating this historic resolution. The five-billion-dollar foundation, to which the German government and German companies contributed equally, paid individual compensation to more than a million and a half victims of German forced labor, while supporting many educational/exchange programs so that the history of German forced labor would not be forgotten.
All in all, some 6,500 German companies, many of which did not even exist during WWII, voluntarily contributed to this foundation. In comparison, very little is being asked of these Japanese companies that used POWs—a sincere apology for the inhumane forced labor and support for the effort to remember the POW history.
The possibilities for these Japanese companies are numerous. The most apparent method would be to help support the Japanese government’s Japanese/POW Friendship Program financially. The current allocation by the Japanese government is quite small, and financial donations would allow more former American POWs, as well as POW descendants, to participate.
There are other ways for Japanese companies to make contribution. They include, but are not limited to:
1) Donating to the ADBC Museum
in West Virginia
Other countries and their business communities have been making similar efforts in order to deal with their own dark histories. For example, the French National Railway, SNCF, recently started its history project to deal with its involvement in transporting Jewish victims to the death camps during the war. On their website, the company states, “By acknowledging its complex history, SNCF is eager to do whatever is necessary to ensure that the historical questions raised are examined through dialogue, historical research and remembrance.”
Jim Collier later reflected on the trip to Takaoka, whose natural beauty he had never recognized while being a forced laborer. "After meeting the kind people at JMC and after observing the beautiful surroundings of the city, I realized that I had been robbed of the opportunity of truly knowing this place for the past 66 years. Takaoka had always remained as a dark and depressing place in my mind. Yet this visit has finally afforded me the opportunity to appreciate its beauty."
The visit of Bergbower and Collier to their former place of imprisonment and forced labor clearly demonstrates that endorsing open dialogue provides a means for further progress and understanding.
Thanks to the tenacity of Dr. Tenney and to the courage shown by Ambassador Fujisaki, who, unlike his predecessors, did not choose the easy way out of ignoring this issue, the effort to bring about honorable resolution to the history of American POWs of the Japanese has been on the right track for the past few years. Japanese companies that once enslaved American POWs find themselves in an extremely opportune season to do the right thing.
Last June, long-time POW-supporting Congressman Mike Honda (D-CA) introduced a resolution praising the Japanese government’s offer of an apology to former POWs and establishing a visitation programs for them. (H. Res. 333) It includes the following provision:
The House of Representatives requests that the Government of Japan respect the wishes and sensibilities of the United States former prisoners of war by requesting those successor Japanese firms of private entities that used United States prisoner of war labor to emulate their government's sincerity by offering an apology and supporting programs for lasting remembrance and reconciliation that recognizes their sacrifices and forced labor.
Next year, 2012, will mark the 70th anniversary of the fall of Bataan and
Corregidor. What happened to those Americans who became POWs of the Japanese is
too compelling to be forgotten. We are fortunate that some former POWs are
still with us today to tell their stories. The magical Takaoka moment of
listening to personal POW stories, paying respect to their sufferings, and
forging a new friendship can be duplicated many times over if only more
Japanese companies realize how much they can contribute to this great
effort of learning together.
posted on November 11, 2011