Thoughts of POW Daughters

Why Japan POW Trips are Important

In 2010 I was honored to be part of the first “Peace, Friendship and Exchange Initiative” for former World War II POWs of the Japanese.  Being the daughter of a POW who died on the Hell Ship Enoura Maru, my perspective on the POW experience is of course very different from the POWs themselves.  I grew up in Los Angeles; my mother made sure that my sister and I did not associate our Japanese neighbors with our father’s death.  My mother never talked about his experience; grief was to be hidden.  It was many years before I discovered the truth about the Bataan Death March, life in Cabanatuan prison and the Hell Ships.  For me the last few years have been a search for my dad – a figure in a picture that I could not remember but which made me different from other people.   

I started attending the American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor conventions. I discovered the exact circumstances of his death through a letter written to my mother after the war.  I found a man who had known him and we became close friends.  My first odyssey was a trip to the Philippines for the 60th anniversary of the Death March in 2002.  Over time I came to realize the profound effect that his service, imprisonment and death had on me.  And at the center of that set of events was Japan. In spite of many similarities, each POW and every member of their families has a unique reaction to and perspective as a result of their experience – and Japan and the Japanese people will always be an integral part of their life story.

The trip was well planned with a variety of activities and meetings and I am most grateful to all who made it happen.  One highlight was being present when Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada apologized for the treatment of our POWs.  Another was the visit to Ryozen Kannon in Kyoto.  Buddhist monks had created a card catalog containing a card for each POW of the Japanese who had died.  I found my father’s card and was overcome with emotion.  It brought up the feelings of loss and grief that had been suppressed for so long.  It was meaningful because someone had taken the time and effort to hand-type the card on a manual typewriter and preserve it at the shrine.  So even though my dad did not make it to Japan, this trip was a major step in both my personal search for understanding the part his experience and death played in the historical context and relationship of our two countries as well as my personal journey coming to grips with the lifelong effect on my life and family. 

Nancy Kragh
Daughter of
Maj. Clarence White
Medical Corps, 31st Infantry Regiment
O’Donnell and Cabanatuan POW camps
Died on the Hellship "Enoura Maru" on 01/11/45

                        Maj. Clarence White                 Nancy holding the card for her father


The ravages of the POW experience live on in their children

The Japanese American Friendship Program that invites former POWs to visit Japan as guests of the Japanese Government is a valuable tool toward healing the wounds left from WWII. The first trip included two descendants and the 2013 trip had two widows but otherwise the trip has been limited to POWs. At this point we are told the 2014 will include only POWs.

The ravages of the time spent in captivity by POWs held by the Japanese lives on in many of their families. Many children who were born before the war were never to see their father alive after he kissed them goodbye and went off to war. They grew up with a grieving mother, often in very difficult situations, often as “the stepchildren”. The post war children of the surviving POW fathers were aware that their fathers were somehow different from other fathers. Although it was not talked about in many cases, there was unexplained moodiness, withdrawal, and screaming nightmares in addition to quirks that allowed no wasting of food and a high expectation of self sufficiency. They were especially hard on their sons. 

For the sons and daughters of these men, part of the appeal of the ADBC-MS (American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor Memorial Society) is to meet and correspond with other people who have had the same experience with their fathers. The shared experience creates a very strong bond. First timers at the annual conventions have been known to comment that they feel they have just acquired a new family. If you didn’t have a POW father you will never truly understand the phenomenon.

There are three of us in my family. I am the oldest, followed by my sister, Marydee, and my brother, Tab. Marydee and I are only 14 months apart and Tab is 5 years younger than I am. Mother passed away in 1966 and our dad passed away in 1972 at the age of 57. The ultimate cause of death for both of them was diagnosed as cancer. It seemed that throughout our childhood one or the other was always in the hospital.  Daddy made a career in the Army after the war, going from the Infantry to the Quartermaster Corps. There must have been something in the back of his head that made him want to be near the food. Part of his job was inspection and administrative work at the posts where we were stationed. He was in charge of food service for all of Alaska, very often flying in tiny airplanes to remote outposts with a bush pilot. A transcript of a Physical Evaluation Board hearing conducted at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in 1957 tells of the extreme difficulty that he was having with neuropathy in his legs causing him to constantly stumble and of problems with his eyes. Echoes of his dengue fever, pellagra, beri-beri, and prison camp blindness from malnutrition were sounding.  It was severe enough that he was not able to do his job and he decided to leave the Army after twenty years.

Very recently Marydee and I spent hours going through an old box of family papers that she had stored for many years. Because I have been researching my father’s wartime experiences for the past 10 years, I was hoping for new clues to these seldom mentioned experiences. There was really nothing new or revealing about my father, however, the envelope holding the autopsy and medical records of our mother were quite revealing and left us a little shaken.

Dated March, 1953, while we were stationed at Ft. Richardson, Alaska, a report that detailed her entire medical history also described the current illness, “erythema nodosum” a disease that causes painful lesions under the skin of the legs with severe joint pain which makes walking difficult. She had had an outbreak of this same disease in 1951 and because some symptoms were similar, was tested for amebiasis the report says “because her husband had been a Japanese prisoner of war found to have amebiasis”.  

The test was positive. This is the same thing that caused the amoebic dysentery that killed so many of the POWs in the jungles, on the Death March, and later in the prison camps. The report  concluded, “The family history was significant in that one child was also found to have amebiasis in January, 1951.”  I was reading the report out loud and when I came to this part both of us were stunned. There was shocked silence as we stared at each other, wondering which one of us had shared this affliction. In January, 1951 the family was stationed at Ft. Ord, CA. and we were two and three. Our brother was not yet born and neither of has any memory of any health issues at that time. Sixty three years later there is nobody to ask, and thankfully, no symptoms.

This revelation is my personal story but serves to illustrate that the ravages of the POW experience were not limited to the POWs. There are many stories that are much worse. In our case, the consequences of the war and imprisonment were visited on two other members of the family six years later. Our ADBC-MS families are living proof that the physical and emotional misery of being held prisoner by the Japanese did not end in the fall of 1945. 

Very soon there will be no POWS able to travel on such an arduous trip since most are in their 90’s.  When the time comes that there are not enough of the former prisoners of war to fill the quota, expanding the Japanese American Friendship Program to include more widows and the children of the POWs would greatly benefit the continuation of improved relations between Japan and the United States and soothe the wounds that still linger. It is important for the people of Japan and in the US to know what happened in WWII so as never to repeat that chapter of our mutual history.

Caroline Burkhart
Daughter of Cap. Thomas F. Burkhart
45th Infantry, Philippine Scouts
O’Donnell and Cabanatuan POW camps,  Hellship “Nagato Maru”
Tanagawa, Zentsuji, Roku Roshi POW camps in Japan

Cap. Burkhart in Zentsuji camp                         Caroline