Remembering Col. Rosen (1918-2007)
By Kinue Tokudome

On October 18, 2007, I attended the burial ceremony of the late Col. Melvin H. Rosen at Arlington National Cemetery. It was a beautiful autumn day and the ceremony was held with full military honors under a clear blue sky. The casket draped in a US flag was carried by a caisson that was drawn by seven white horses. In addition to family members, nearly 100 friends attended the service conducted by a Jewish Rabbi. Kaddish, the Jewish Mourners' Prayer, was recited. Three rifle volleys were fired and Taps played by a bugler. At the end of the ceremony, Mrs. Olive Rosen received the folded flag.

                                                                               photo courtesy of Mr. Donald Plata

Col. Rosen graduated from the US Military Academy at West Point in 1940 and volunteered to be sent to the Philippines in January of 1941. He became a POW of the Japanese on April 9, 1942, when the US/Philippines forces in the Bataan peninsula were surrendered to the Japanese Army. He survived the Bataan Death March and imprisonment in POW camps where thousands died due to inhumane treatment, executions, starvation and diseases. He was later transported on three POW transporting Hellships, the Oryoku Maru, the Enoura Maru and the Brazil Maru, before being finally liberated at the POW camp in Inchon, Korea in September of 1945.

Yet, he welcomed me, a Japanese person, into his life with open arms. As I said my final farewell to Col. Rosen, so many memories came back.

To me, he was a military person through and through. His back was always straight and his words always clear and proper. The only time his voice cracked was when he shared with me his memory of witnessing his fellow POW bayoneted by a Japanese soldier on the Bataan Death March.

I decided to take it upon myself to tell his story to as many people as possible, especially the Japanese people. It has often been a frustrating task, but at the same time it was an extremely rewarding experience to work with a person of Col. Rosen's integrity. I tried to be a person worthy of his friendship.

In 2003, I made a presentation on the POW issue for a conference held at George Washington University. The theme of the conference was "Memory and Reconciliation" and it was open to the public. When I saw Col. Rosen and Mrs. Olive Rosen sitting in the front row, I felt so privileged to tell his POW story to the audience which included many students. My presentation contained Col. Rosen's recollection on the condition of Hellships:

We sailed from Takao on January 14. The daily death rate on the Brazil Maru escalated from about 20 to 40. Now we were sailing in the East China Sea with snow coming in our open hatch. Men froze to death, died of starvation, died of thirst, and died of a myriad of diseases. I had managed to keep my West Point class ring hidden, but now traded it to a Japanese guard for half a canteen of oily water. Again there were no sanitary facilities, and so the hold was ankle deep in feces, urine, and vomit.

Of the 1,619 that left Manila on the Oryoku Maru, some 400 of us reached Moji, Japan somewhat alive on January 28, 1945. As the Japanese took the survivors off the ship, they weighed some of us. I was weighed at exactly 40 kilos (88 pounds). My normal weight should have been about 155.

A few days after the conference, a conservative Japanese newspaper accused this event of being an "anti-Japan seminar." I did not tell Col. Rosen about the accusation, but did write an op-ed piece for another Japanese newspaper. In it I wrote:

Listening to voices of these people and trying to find what Japan should do now is not an “anti-Japan” activity. What Japan will gain by showing genuine sincerity to those who she once enslaved and restoring their justice and honor while they are still alive is immeasurable.

In 2005, one of the most popular magazines in Japan published an article that downplayed or even questioned the atrocious nature of the Bataan Death March. After reading the English translation of the article, Col. Rosen wrote to me:

The article made my blood boil. Rather than giving us their own food and water, Japanese guards gave us only beatings, bayoneting, shootings and beheadings. I would be very happy to repeat these charges on a polygraph.

I found it so profoundly sad that a Bataan Death March survivor, 63 years after the event, would have to submit to a polygraph test to prove what he went through. I helped organize a press conference to protest this article. In the end, the magazine published a lengthy protest letter written by another Death March survivor Dr. Lester Tenney.

My proudest memory with Col. Rosen was my being, at his request, a keynote speaker for the 2006 reunion of the Philippine Scouts Heritage Society. He was a young officer of the Philippine Scouts with whom he fought in defense of the Philippines. I knew how much he loved the Philippines Scouts and how proud he was of its heritage. I felt deeply honored to be given the opportunity to share my thoughts with this group. 

Speech for the Philippine Scouts Heritage Society

Col. Rosen was the plaintiff of the class action lawsuit against the Japanese government which sought $1 trillion for damages. I don't know who decided that amount, but as far as I could tell, all Col. Rosen wanted was to see justice. He wanted to see the Japanese government apologize for the atrocious treatment of POWs which was in violation of International law at that time.   

He once told me the story of how he started to grow a mustache. Before the war, ten young American officers used to get together at an officers' bar in Manila. One night someone said, "Why don't we all grow a mustache?" Soon all ten of them had a mustache. None of them, except Col. Rosen, survived the war.

He lived his life after the war with dignity. And he dedicated his life to his country and to the memory of his friends who died in its defense. He also developed a very special friendship with those children who lost their POW fathers on the same Hellships he was on. The late Navy Captain Duane Heisinger was one of them. My fondest memory was the dinner I had with Col. Rosen, Olive and Cap. Heisinger at Col. Rosen's favorite restaurant. They were truly men of honor and kindest human beings I met.   

Col. Rosen's successful military career brought him back to the place where he was liberated as a POW, Korea, as a Colonel commanding some 14,500 US troops.

He was blessed with a beautiful wife, wonderful children, and grandchildren. I was always delighted whenever Col. Rosen shared with me the story of how he eloped with his wife, Olive--totally uncharacteristic of the person I came to know. Theirs was a true love story. Olive once told me that Col. Rosen first tried to protect his young wife from finding out about his horrific POW experience. But in the end, they shared everything.

celebrating his 88th birthday with his wife, Olive (2006)

I traveled to many places where Col. Rosen was held as a POW of the Japanese. Bataan, O'Donnell POW camp, Cabanatuan POW camp, Bilibid Prison, and Subic Bay where the Hellship Oryoku Maru was sunk by friendly fire and from where he swam to the shore. Thanks to Captain Heisinger's tireless efforts, we now have a beautiful memorial there to remember those who perished and those who suffered on Hellships. 


Hellships Memorial inscription


I try not to mourn the passing of Col. Rosen. As he said to me many times, he led a very happy and fulfilling life. And as he lived, he touched many lives. Mine was one of them and I will be forever grateful to him for giving me a very special opportunity to learn the history of American POWs of the Japanese through his experience.

Thank you, Col. Rosen. May you rest in peace.


                                                                  photo courtesy of Mr. Donald Plata

More about Col. Rosen's POW story