Zentsuji POW Camp

Koshi Kobayashi

I visited the Zentsuji POW campsite for the first time on November 17, 2007. As I expected, nothing remained of the campsite, only a junior high school was there. Before I visited the site, I had called the school, asking whether anything of the ruins or related history materials existed of the camp. Then, they told me to forward my inquiries to the Board of Education in the city. The Board advised me to visit Nogi Museum where there were some newspaper articles related to the camp.

Let me describe my visits in sequence.

Nogi Museum  

The Zentsuji Army Post was founded as ex-Japanese Ground Force 11th Division in 1898, and General Maresuke Nogi was the first division commander, famous in the Russo-Japan War (1904-1905). On the right wall of the entrance hall of the museum, there displayed some outlined maps of the camp and a newspaper article about one former American POW, doctor David D. Kliewer from Oregon, who visited Zentsuji with his wife on October 10, 1989. Dr. Kliewer was 72 years old when he visited his former POW camp. The first floor of the museum was used by the musical band of the force, the second one displayed some mementoes and photos of General Nogi. A member of the Self Defense Force guided me around the exhibitions. The museum is open to the public every day.

Tomb stone for those POWs who died in Zentsuji

It was in the precincts of ex-Japanese Army Cemetery and now it was maintained by Zentsuji City. The tomb was set up by Mr. Toshio Yokogawa in 1952 and names of 10 POWs who died in Zentsuji were engraved on the tomb stone. When I paid a visit to the tomb, someone already offered some flowers and incense sticks there.

School and trees on the camp site

I walked around the junior high school which was the campsite 62 years ago. Around the school a kind of junipers were planted, and some of them might be over 60 years old. 


Lady who worked at Zentsuji Camp

Mrs. Masako Tada (81) worked at the camp as a clerk just after graduating from a girl's school at 17. She worked there for two years from the beginning but retired because the headquarters of the camp moved to Hiroshima. She didn't have any contact with POWs in Zentsuji. She was still active though a little hard of hearing. When Dr. Kliewer returned to Zentsuji, she talked with him.

(Left: Mrs. Tada )

Ten POWs still memorialized 

During World War II, many POWs died of terrible sickness, getting homesick in Japan. That happened in the Zentsuji prison camp also. In Zentsuji, seven American, two British and one Australian soldiers died during the war.

Mr. Fumio Okita (82) continued to hold memorial services for the 10 deceased souls at the front of his Buddhist altar, taking over his father Yoneichi Okita’s services who died at the age of 61 on May 6, 1954.

During the war when Mr. Okita’s father was working as a staff member of the health and medical division of Zentsuji City Office, he saw prisoners dying of sickness. In those days, there were as many as 600 POWs in the camp. Thinking about their feelings and their families left at home, he began to hold a memorial service for the deceased souls at his home.

Young Okita entered Marugame Infantry Regiment at 19, in 1944, and returned to Japan from China in 1946. Just after the war, his corps marched from Jinan to Qingdao for nearly one month, lingering between life and death. During this period, he witnessed a lot of his comrades die in China, while they were thinking of their wives, children and parents left at home. After returning home from the war, he found his father was holding memorial services for the dead POWs, and he was moved to tears. After his father died, he took over his father’s memorial service and continued to this day. Mr. Okita worked at Sakaide Thermal Power Station of Shikoku Electric Power Co. for 38 years until his retirement age.

Mr. Okita enshrined a Buddhist memorial tablet on the altar which included a paper list of the 10 men’s names written in Japanese. On the paper, their names, birth and death dates are handwritten by his father. As his father had performed before him, Mr. Okita has continued to hold memorial services on the death date of each of the 10 POWs. The names were written in Japanese, but I found later that they matched the English names from our POW Research Network Japan.

“Whether they are Japanese or foreign people, human beings think of their own homelands and families in the same way. I’d like to hold memorial services for them as long as possible,” said Mr. Okita.                                               Mr. Okita in front of the altar at his home

Mr. Okita said that he now suffered from pulmonary emphysema and that he did not know how many more years he would be able to hold this Buddhist service. 

Mt. Gahaishi Zentsuji POWs must have seen everyday

P.S. Mr. Hiroyuki Mori, an office worker at Mitoyo City Hall next to the city of Zentsuji, kindly guided me in the city and helped me a lot.                                                              (Right: Mr. Hiroyuki Mori)


* Koshi Kobayashi lives in the Hiroshima prefecture and is a member of POW Research Network Japan.


From the daughter of a Zentsuji POW

Caroline Burkhart

My father, 1st Lt. Thomas F. Burkhart, 45th Infantry (PS), was captured on Bataan and taken by hellship to Japan in November, 1942. His first camp in Japan was Tanagawa where he slowly lost his eyesight due to malnutrition. This camp was a nightmare and many men died there as the diseases of the tropics and nearly a year of insufficient and poor food took their toll. When the officers were transferred to Zentsuji in January of 1943 they knew that their luck had changed when they saw the condition of the prisoners that had been there for several months, most of them captured on Guam and Wake Island early in the war. Though Zentsuji was deemed a “propaganda camp” conditions there were still harsh and men were punished for any perceived offense often on a whim of the guard in charge. Because the men did not know the real names of the guards they gave them nicknames. “Saki Pete”, “Leatherwrist”, “Buttons, and “Club Fist” come up again and again in the War Crimes records (RG 389) in the National Archives in College Park, MD.  Tamae Kondo who became the camp commander in December, 1944 was sentenced to five years at hard labor by the Yokohama War Crimes Trials. He was accused and convicted of mistreating the prisoners at Zentsuji.

With the improved food at Zentsuji his sight returned and Tom Burkhart was able to keep a journal. These daily jottings consisted mostly of what they had to eat that particular day because to eat was to live and survive. Food boxes from the Red Cross were often the only thing standing between starvation and death. The journals noted the deaths of Maj. Leslie R. Slater, Royal Engineers in July, 1944 and in November, 1944 of Sgt. W. H. Sobey, USMC, Major B. A. Barrett, US Army, and Donald Moulden, RAF.

POWs at Zentsuji POW camp (Caroline's father, second from the left)

As Americans involved in research on the POW experience, we hear so much about how the Japanese government refuses to tender an official apology or even, in many cases, to acknowledge the deplorable treatment of the Allied prisoners held on the Japanese mainland and throughout Asia. As we all know, government policies often do not represent the will of the individual citizen. After reading about your visit to Zentsuji I was very touched that the memory of the men who died at Zentsuji sixty four years ago is still being honored by some of the Japanese people. This was totally unexpected. For Mr. Fumio Okita to assume the voluntary burden of his father in remembering these long dead prisoners of war reaffirms to those of us in the United States the preponderance of kind and decent people in Japan. We must always remember that no one nation has a monopoly on this sort of humane behavior. I feel that the men of the Zentsuji camp and their families would be immensely pleased to learn of this devotion to their lost comrades.

* more about Zentsuji (website of Center for Research Allied POWS Under the Japanese)


Please read also "Photo album of Zentsuji POW camp"