Lester Tenney was stunned to receive a call that Japan’s new ambassador to the US would see him. He had tried for years to seek an apology from Japanese officials for the atrocities he witnessed and endured as a prisoner of war during World War II.
His letters and calls seeking justice and reconciliation were routinely ignored. Then, on Veterans Day 2008, more than 63 years after the end of the war, Tenney was visiting Arlington National Cemetery when word finally came. Japanese Ambassador Ichiro Fujisaki invited Tenney to his home and asked how he might help.
The unexpected rapprochement led to friendship, and to yesterday’s trip to Japan by a group of American POWs, including Tenney.
Although Japan has hosted former POWs from other nations since 1995, it will be the country’s first ever sponsored trip aimed at reconciling with US POWs.
At 90, Tenney remains a barrel-chested raconteur with a booming voice and sharp wit. Fujisaki, 63, was born two years after the war ended. He had been on the job only five months, but knew that Tenney had not received any response from Japanese officials.
“This request came and we thought, ‘Why not, if this gentleman wants to meet us?’” Fujisaki said.
The conversation had been welling in Tenney since April 9, 1942, when the US surrendered on the Philippines’ Bataan Peninsula, ending a four-month battle. Thousands of troops died walking for days in tropical heat to a prison camp.
Tenney doesn’t remember how many prisoners he saw beheaded, killed by bayonet or shot to death on the Bataan Death March — dozens, perhaps more than 100. Many more died in the next few weeks from disease.
He told Fujisaki that he saw a Japanese guard order two Americans to bury a malaria-stricken mate alive because he was too weak to stand. When they refused, the guard shot one dead. The next Americans pulled from the line buried both soldiers — one dead, one screaming.
“When you have to watch your own friends get killed and you have to stand there and can’t do a thing, it is awful,” Tenney said in a later interview, his voice shaking with emotion. “It stays with you forever.”
For three years, Tenney worked 12-hour days in a Japanese coal mine, watching men die in droves from disease. He remembers a US medic who amputated limbs with a steak knife, without anesthetics.
Tenney told Fujisaki that afternoon that he had three wishes: an apology from the Japanese government, an apology from Japanese companies that enslaved the POWs, and a government-paid trip to Japan for US POWs.
As the men exchanged letters over the next few months, Tenney began pressing Fujisaki to say a few words at a convention of American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor in May last year. The group was disbanding after 63 years because too few veterans remained.
Fujisaki wavered until the last day. He said he decided to go only after Tenney stopped insisting that he deliver good news, that his presence would be enough.
Fujisaki wrote his remarks on the flight to San Antonio, Texas. He brought a copy of a 1995 speech in which then Japanese prime minister Tomiichi Murayama acknowledged widespread damage that the Japanese military caused during the war. Fujisaki thought he could quote Murayama’s speech directly, even though it did not mention POWs.
The speech that followed was unprecedented. Fujisaki said Japan’s regrets over World War II extended to its treatment of POWs, including those captured in Bataan. It was the first — and still the only — time that a Japanese official has explicitly apologized to POWs.
Fujisaki said he consulted no one in Tokyo about the remarks.
“I felt that we should not miss that opportunity,” he said.
About half the audience of 500 people — 70 POWs and the rest descendants — gave him a standing ovation, while others jeered or stayed silent, Tenney said.
Fujisaki later told Tenney that he was trying to arrange a trip to Japan for the POWs.
Tenney worked with the US State Department to pick the 14-member delegation. The first 10 POWs he called were unfit to travel, so he created a raffle. The final count for the eight-day trip was six POWs and six of their relatives, plus two daughters of POWs who died.
Tenney and his wife won’t visit his old mine or the former employer who has ignored his requests to meet. Instead they will visit the grave of Toru Tasaka in Matsuyama. Tasaka had stayed with them as an exchange student in San Diego in 1968 and became a close friend. The Tenneys went to Japan for his wedding in 1988.
Tenney says Tasaka taught him not to hate the Japanese, but he still resented the government. This week’s visit, though, means that change has at long last come.
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