My Uncle, Louis Read
Norman Read, Jr.

My uncle Louis Read was a kind, quietly intelligent man. I never once saw him try to attract attention to himself or raise his voice. When told about another person's bad or in some cases, surprisingly bad behavior, his reaction was to look down, and shake his head with a small chuckle. He never participated in gossip. I never heard him speak ill of Japanese people or anyone else for that matter.  The one exception was the Japanese prison camp commandant who was hung for war crimes. Although he didn't say so, I could tell he wasn't very sorry about that.

Louis had a number of fine qualities, but when I think about his lifelong accomplishments along with the tragedies he endured, I would say his salient quality was perseverance. Perhaps it was this quality as much as any other that saved his life as a prisoner of war.

Louis lost his mother under tragic circumstances when he was six years old. An unmarried aunt then came to live with his father and two younger brothers in order to help raise the three boys. Although she probably did good work of the difficult job of raising three boys, she was likely not very affectionate. And of course, there's really no substitute for a mother's love.

Louis and his aunt didn't get along very well, and Louis ran away when he was perhaps 7 or 8 years old. He swiped his dad's railroad pass and took the MKT Railroad up to Dallas. His uncle Ben picked him up in Dallas somehow and made Louis' father promise not to punish him when he came up from New Braunfels to retrieve him.

Louis grew up in New Braunfels, Texas. It's a beautiful German town where the Comal river wells up and runs clear, wide, and cool for two miles before it joins the Guadalupe River. The countryside there is full of limestone caves, and my dad told me that Louis often lived in these caves for days or weeks at a time, returning home in the middle of the night only just long enough to grab some food and other supplies.

In 1936 when Louis was 16, his father traveled to Wichita Falls to check into the MKT Railroad hospital. He said good-bye to his father at the train station, having no idea he'd never see him again.  His father died three weeks later of throat cancer.

Louis didn't stick around long after that. He stayed with another aunt for a while, and for a time he and another boy traveled on freight trains and lived as hoboes. Luckily, his cousin, who was a cadet Army Air Force officer in San Antonio stepped up and took Louis in as a dependent in his officers' quarters. This environment helped Louis get on the right path.

During the war, the Bataan veterans tenaciously fought the well-prepared Japanese Imperial Army with little ammunition, supplies, food, or rest. Louis ate lizards and insects in order to survive. When ordered to surrender by General King, they complied. One of the reasons they were treated so harshly by the Japanese was the feeling of the average Japanese soldier (and later Korean prison guards) that anyone who would surrender rather than fighting to the death was sub-human.

I feel sure that Louis' experience growing up in the Texas heat without a mother and little supervision helped him survive the Bataan Death March and subsequent imprisonment and slave labor.  However, I suppose it's also possible that Louis' survival of wartime POW conditions in turn helped him endure several post-war tragedies. Louis and his wife had four lovely children, but they lost a young son, then a daughter who was a young adult, and then another daughter as a middle-aged adult.

At the end of the war, America could have honored the returning the Bataan survivors as the heroes they were. It's a shame that they were instead greeted with indifference, or in some cases, worse. No matter how hard they fought, no matter how epic their survival, it may be that soldiers who had followed General King's orders to surrender didn't fit a victorious national mood. They deserved better.

Read brothers, Norman (author's father) on the left and Louis on the right

In April of 1998, I went to Bataan myself.  My intent was to walk the path of the Bataan death march so that I could at least see the places that Louis had been and have some inkling of what it had been like. When I was a kid, I used to beg my dad to get us an air conditioner so we could get through the Texas summers. I always thought he was just too cheap to buy one, and no doubt that was an element in his decision not to. However, I now realize he wanted me to be tough enough to handle Texas summers, and I guess I was. But I wasn't tough enough for Bataan. I wasn’t prepared for the April jungle heat of Bataan and quickly abandoned my hike and took small buses.  Knowing that the climate was just one small part of the difficulties that Louis faced, I realized then that my uncle had been made out of pretty stern stuff. 

On the positive side, I did enjoy riding the buses in Bataan, some of which were nice coaches, and some were reconditioned school buses. A pleasant surprise was discovering that the Filipinos often sing on the buses, many of which are outfitted with karaoke machines.

As an aside, I am married to a delightful Japanese woman who grew up in Tokyo, and we have an adorable two-year old son and two older boys, aged 10 and 12. We live in Oregon, where I work as a geologist.

Memories of Mr. Louis Read

Kinue Tokudome

The late Mr. Louis Read was a very special person to me.  In May of 2004, I had an incredible opportunity to make a presentation on American POWs of the Japanese at a small conference held at Stanford University with former Ambassador to Japan Michael Armacost sitting next to me. I started my presentation by speaking about my experience of meeting Mr. Read who had been forced to work in a mine not too far away from where I was born and grew up.  I explained how vividly his memory came back when he saw recent photos of the mine I took.  I wanted to give the POW history a human face. I wanted to emphasize that this history was still connecting people in the US and Japan. I was determined to impress Ambassador Armacost.

After the conference I wrote to Ambassador Armacost asking for his assistance in helping former POWs obtain an apology from the Japanese government for the inhumane treatment they were subjected to during WWII.  He wrote back immediately. He explained that he did not have much influence in Tokyo anymore but suggested that I should take the matter up with a current official. He then wrote, “Keep it up.”

Mr. Read was not interested in receiving monetary compensation, but he did write to me that POWs of the Japanese were entitled to a sincere apology from Japan.

Five more years had to pass before Japanese Ambassador Ichiro Fujisaki came to San Antonio, where the last national convention of former POWs of the Japanese took place, and offered an apology on behalf of his country. I wanted Mr. Read to be there. I knew he wanted to come, but he was too ill.  He passed away in May, 2011.

So it was very special when Mr. Norman Read, Jr., the nephew of Mr. Read, sent me his family photo and wrote, “We have an adorable two-year old son named Tora. If you look at my uncle's picture at the top of your article about my uncle, you can see that Tora and he have the same smile.”


*  More about Mr. Louis Read's POW experience.