The strangeness of it all was not lost on Robert Rosendahl as he walked through the humming Chinese factory, the place where as a World War II prisoner of war he had been a slave laborer for the Japanese. He had hated this factory, just as he hated the Japanese prisoner of war camp that took three years of his life.
On Thursday morning, Rosendahl, 82, was back for the first time. He and two other returning Americans walked tentatively through the factory compound as Chinese television crews crowded in. His wife, Bettie, asked him if he wanted to take a picture.
"I don't want to take a picture," Rosendahl insisted. "Why the hell do I want to take a picture? I spent 59 years trying to forget this place."
Then he paused, laughing gently at his own bluster, and lifted his camera. Click.
He could not resist, just as he could not resist returning after six decades to this city in northeast China where he and roughly 1,500 other Allied prisoners endured forced labor, subzero temperatures and, if the allegations are true, a Japanese-administered germ warfare program that used them as guinea pigs.
Rosendahl, along with two other former American soldiers, Oliver Allen, 82, and Hal Leith, 84, came back on Thursday to Shenyang, in part, because they want to make certain that their brutal chapter of history is not forgotten. In particular, discussions are under way to preserve the remains of the prison camp, known as Mukden, and, possibly in the future, to build a museum.
The question of remembering is a potent one for many Chinese here in the northeastern region, historically known as Manchuria. The return of the American POWs came, by design, on a symbolic day in Chinese history -- the anniversary of Sept. 18, 1931, the beginning of Japan's brutal 14-year occupation of Shenyang and of surrounding Manchuria, when untold numbers of Chinese were slain.
For many Chinese, the lingering resentment and anger toward Japan is great. On Thursday, an online petition signed by more than 1.1 million Chinese called on Japan to compensate Chinese victims of buried chemical weapons left by the Japanese after World War II. Last month, Chinese construction workers unwittingly struck buried mustard gas, killing one person and injuring dozens.
This month, China and Japan held talks on the issue of buried chemical weapons. So far, Japan has rejected the idea of compensation, contending that China relinquished such a claim when it established diplomatic relations with Japan in 1972.
The political subtext, though, was not much on the minds of the former prisoners. Allen, who came with his wife, Mildred, from Tyler, Texas, had been fighting in the Philippines when the Americans were forced to surrender. He and Rosendahl took part in the Bataan Death March before they were brought by boat to Mukden.
During that first winter at Mukden, at least 260 men are believed to have died. The ground froze so deep in the intense cold that the men could not be buried, so their bodies were kept in a room at the factory until springtime.
The old prison camp is now a battered apartment building for poor Chinese. Yet as Rosendahl and Allen went inside, it took them a minute to recognize the place burned in their memories. They stood in a tiny room, since converted into an apartment.
"You recognize any of this?" Rosendahl asked Allen.