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Ex-U.S. POWs visit Japan, recall horrors of war

31 Comments
By ELAINE KURTENBACH and KAORI HITOMI

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Louis Zamperini, a U.S. track star in the 1936 Olympics and bombardier during WWII, spent time at the Omori POW camp which is located close to Omori station, one stop from Shinjuku station in Tokyo. A movie about his life (and possibly featuring actors playing the roles of these men as well) directed by Angelina Jolie is slated for release in December ("Unbroken"). Zamperini recently passed away, in July 2014, otherwise he might have been part of this group of ex-POWs.

In 1988, CBS interviewed the most infamous Omori Prison Camp guard, nicknamed "the bird", who made life particularly hard for Zamperini and these other prisoners during their time in Japan. Here is a clip of that interview (at the 31:00 mark): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aEGL-wyz1yk

3 ( +4 / -1 )

It is a good step forward that Japan invites now those former POWs. Many of them were used as slave laborers and were treated very harsh. Many of them were killed while in Japan. But there is still no monument anywhere in Japan which remembers those former POWs.

6 ( +9 / -3 )

No hint of bitterness (at least their remarks in this article) So maybe "Forgive but don't forget" isn't such a bad thing.

16 ( +15 / -0 )

Good that these guys have a chance to come here and share their story , yet it is also telling that the first sentence of this article focuses on the fact they witnessed " the horrific destruction of Tokyo" once again painting Japan in the victim light.

14 ( +17 / -3 )

The former POWs said they understood that the cruelty and brutality they experienced during the war had much to do with the times.

One of 91-year-old Darrel Stark’s most vivid memories is of a supervisor in the prison camp at Yokkaichi, a copper smelting center in western Japan, who did not retaliate when Stark and another prisoner stole his lunch.

“He came the next day with two lunches, ‘One for you, and one for me,’” said Stark, of Stafford Springs, Connecticut. “If he had reported me, I wouldn’t have been speaking to you tonight.

Why is the best part of the story way down in the last three paragraphs? Even though there can be no question that the Japanese military was capable of, and in fact carried out, countless atrocities towards POW's, it is also just as certain that there were good-hearted individuals in the military who attempted to treat the POW's with respect. Glad to see these guys recognize that and have moved on. Wish Japan, SK, and China could all somehow find a way to do it as well..

8 ( +13 / -5 )

@Andreas

"... There is still no monument anywhere in Japan which remembers those former POWs"

I don't know where you're getting your info.

There's a memorial at every single former POW camp throughout the whole of Japan....

8 ( +10 / -2 )

But there is still no monument anywhere in Japan which remembers those former POWs.

@Andreas There actually are a number of such monuments throughout Japan, one of them being the Heiwajima Kannon (Goddess of Mercy) located at the former Omori POW camp site, shown in the photo with this article.

8 ( +8 / -0 )

Hope these war survivals to speak out war renouncing to the world about never starting war and joining war.

3 ( +4 / -1 )

@lucabrasi @ Sensato. Well I didn't know that. I apologize if this is true. But on the picture I can not see any description on the statue. Is it mentioned that this place was a former POW camp and many people were killed here and/or were used as slave laborers? I just know about the Aso mines (Mitsui Miike coal mine) in Fukuoka and at least there is no mention at all. So putting up nice Heiwajima Kannon statues is good but it means nothing, if there is no mention about why this statue is there.

1 ( +4 / -3 )

"There actually are a number of such monuments throughout Japan,"

Are the monuments dedicated to the POWs or other victims of the Japanese, and record their suffering?

The Heiwajima Kannon shows a Japanese Shinto god, which seems to, um, miss the point. I don't see any image or mention of the POWs, who built "peace island" in the first place.

0 ( +4 / -4 )

Is it mentioned that this place was a former POW camp

@Andreas

Here is one sentence from the sign at the Heiwajima site explaining its origins provided in Japanese (unfortunately, there is no English at the site from what I can see): "平和観音像が建立された平和島はさきの大戦中相手国の俘虜収容所があった處、戦後はわが国戦犯が苦難の日々を送った請わば「戦争と平和」の因縁の地であります。"

Rough translation: "During WWII, a POW camp was located [here] on Heiwajima Island where this canon of peace has been erected. The destiny of this site after the war is that of [symbolizing] war and peace in reflection of Japan’s war criminals who caused daily hardship."

5 ( +7 / -2 )

@Andreas I would beg that you would not judge an entire nation based on your ONE example. How can you judge the meaning of that statue and its affects to those POWs when you aren't a POW yourself? Some cultures place more values on actions instead of words. Please have an open mind instead of simply stating "it means nothing." Notice how these POWs found it in their hearts to return back to their prison camps with an open mind and focused their time on sharing their experiences to educate the current generation of children instead of bashing the Japanese government and demanding compensation or recognition for their suffering? Peace can be found when we look past our own grievances.

3 ( +4 / -1 )

Jeff Lee:"The Heiwajima Kannon shows a Japanese Shinto god, which seems to, um, miss the point. "

I can't see the monument but Kannon suggests a Buddhist statue, not Shinto. And yes, there is a big difference.

7 ( +8 / -1 )

Good that the J-government is doing this. Good to hear these POW's stories and their ideas today.

I highly recommend "The Railway Man": a true story about a British former POW who meets his former guard and interrogator.

5 ( +6 / -1 )

I remember my father telling me a story about his university days. In those days, the 50s, there were so many former soldiers on the G.I. Bill going to university that they slept in bunk beds in the gymnasium. Anyway, there was this one guy who would often jump up from his bed in the middle of the night screaming, "Kill them all! Kill them all!" For the guys who were new to this environment, they would say, "What's wrong with that guy?!" The veterans there who knew the guy would just say, "Don't mind him. He was in a Japanese POW camp." After that, nothing more was said and it was understood that the guy was to be left alone to his own demons and nightmares.

6 ( +7 / -1 )

It is still not really 100% clear why the IJA treated pow's so badly during WW2.

For one thing, the IJA treated pow's during the Russo-Japanese war and WW1 extremely well.

So the idea that it is all about the Japanese samurai honor code, saying that thus Japanese culture led them to see soldiers who surrendered as worth nothing, is not 100% true. On the other hand, Japanese soldiers at the time were indeed told things like this, so there is something to it. But this samurai talk and not surrendering was only instilled in the IJA in the 1930's. Samurai in conflict during the Sengoku and Bakumatsu periods often surrendered or changed sides.

One thing that is often forgotten is that the IJA had a very bad logistical system (and lots of ships were sunk by US submarines), meaning there wasn't any food around, also not for the Japanese soldiers. A large number of them died of malnutrition. So the pow's were last in the pecking order. In my opinion, that doesn't excuse it, since it is the responsibility of the army to care for their prisoners.

There is also a bit of a myth about "the Japanese POW camp" as being exceptionally cruel and bad torture camps. Some surely were, but although I surely wouldn't want to be in one, some POW camps were actually not that bad, with food around and pow's mostly running their own affairs. So it seemed to have depended on the situation.

Also, the German treatment of Soviet POW's was probably worse. They just put them in a large field with a fence around and let them starve. Some turned to cannibalism. Some 3.3 million died.

-2 ( +3 / -5 )

Regular prison fare consisted of a gruel of water mixed with feed com, plus an occasional dog or cat that wandered too close. At times, some prisoners drank their own urine and attempted to eat their own feces to survive. At times, prisoners were made to stand all night without food or sleep before marching several miles to Kawasaki to work all day in the fiery steel mill. When freedom came, it happened overnight. Atomic bombs had been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Imperial Japan had surrendered (The memorial is focused around a large statue of Kannon, a Buddhist symbol of compassion).

3 ( +3 / -0 )

These guys should go to the Yakasuni Shrine and honor the Japanese fallen also.

-12 ( +3 / -15 )

@5eriously. I agree with you " I would beg that you would not judge an entire nation based on your ONE example." but neither should you. There were over 100 POW camps in Japan. I am very much interested in the history of the Pacific War and did some research about those camp sites. I visited former camp sites in Takadanobaba, Shinagwa, Shinjuku, Ofuna and Kanagawa. Could not find any trace of the sites, even asked some people who live very near since long if they know anything. There were very surprised to hear that the place where they park their cars was a former POW camp were people were killed and tortured. I read "Railway man" but also "The forgotten Highlander" which tells more about POW life in Japan. Interesting fact is that quite a lot of the guards in the camps were not japanese but korean who often treated the POWs more brutal than the japanese guards.

4 ( +5 / -1 )

shonanbb

These guys should go to the Yakasuni Shrine and honor the Japanese fallen also.

Yeah, exactly. These men should go to **yasukuni to pay homage to the criminals who were directly responsible for their suffering. Get real.

7 ( +12 / -5 )

@saitamarefugee, let us not negativism stay in our hearts. I seem to believe that those ex POW's have that kind of feeling of rejoice for no matter how cruel that war to them, they are able to survive it and live fully to see Japan in time of peace and progress. I have this great feeling of hugging each one of them for not being bitter about the past. If I can find time, I would want to visit the Yasukuni Shrine and all the rest of POW camps too.

2 ( +5 / -3 )

@Ishiwara

It is still not really 100% clear why the IJA treated pow's so badly during WW2.

As you said, it was a case by case basis. Some POWs were treated worse than others, on all sides, depending on the situation and individuals involved.

Your comment is one of the best I've seen on this site regarding this topic.

I find it ironic to see so many ready to generalize and stereotype, (rather than be impartial and study the facts), which was one the chief causes of mistreatment 70 years ago. People are just as gullible as ever, and sometimes the ones deluding them are themselves.

0 ( +3 / -3 )

I have a great respect for these elders and people involved in this exchange. My own landlord had his home leveled by the B-52s in Shinjuku (all of the station area, he said) but he rents to me without any hate. My elderly neighbor carried her siblings over and around dead bodies in Hachioji after the air raids then. She has the biggest heart and was the most open of neighbors when I moved to our current home. Both of these people were jr. high schoolers. She can still remember eating the potatoes that were scorched from the bombing. Great article. Would love to have heard the talk at Temple University!

2 ( +3 / -1 )

I'm glad this isn't just another typical Japanese bashing article by Americans.

It seems like these men were able to continue with their lives, living their life to the fullest and not worrying about petty things and a tragic past that a lot of others do too often.

That, is what's important. Not hating on an entire country for something that a few leaders did in the PAST.

Someone should invite them to a maid cafe.

-4 ( +3 / -7 )

Sensato

Thanks for the link on Louis Zamperini, regrettably I have never heard his story before, and it's an absolute ripper. What an incredible life.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

grjkzz: "I'm glad this isn't just another typical Japanese bashing article by Americans."

And I'm sorry that all you see in the recounting of trials people suffer if they paint the actions of Japan in a negative light as 'bashing'.

"Someone should invite them to a maid cafe."

Ummm... why? and, yeah, right... if they said they did not like it or thought it was disgusting you'd call it Japan-bashing.

The fact is, a whole lot of POWs died in horrible conditions, and that goes for any POW of any nationality, and Japanese taken by Russians and put into labor camps at the end of and/or after the war, and some survived despite these horrible conditions. Them pointing it out is not 'bashing' and is worth just as much consideration and sympathy as the guard in the moving story at the end of the article. How DARE you say the negative experiences are 'petty things' to be forgotten and that they should remember or that we cannot learn from! The horrible stories are NECESSARY so that we CAN live our lives and move on, and hopefully not repeat the past. I have no doubt that if asked these men would be saddened to hear about revisions made to history or attempts at changing the progress Japan has made by eliminating the pacifist from the constitution.

0 ( +6 / -6 )

@smithinjapan Your ability to twist others' words to sound worse than they are is amazing. After doing so, you proceed to strongly comment against their opinions with your own delusions of how malicious they sound.

Not only that, you constantly impose your thoughts onto others and use it as a basis to assume what others would say in response to your comment. Here's an example:

Someone should invite them to a maid cafe."

Ummm... why? and, yeah, right... if they said they did not like it or thought it was disgusting you'd call it Japan-bashing.

If these men said that the idea of maid cafes were disgusting and deplorable, I wouldn't call it bashing. I would accept that they simply don't like it for their own reasons. Your threshold for definitions of words are set really low. So low that you'd probably think that any male who glances at a child is a pedophile too.

How DARE you say the negative experiences are 'petty things' to be forgotten and that they should remember or that we cannot learn from!

I NEVER said they were "to be forgotten" nor did I suggest it. I'm not going to even bother explaining anything anymore.

So @smithinjapan, I suggest that you take a long time to look yourself in the mirror and think about why you like to exaggerate things and twist them in ways to benefit yourself. But knowing you, I'm going to assume that you're going to read this as "go kill yourself," then comment with a comeback.

-2 ( +4 / -6 )

My own landlord had his home leveled by the B-52s in Shinjuku (all of the station area, he said) but he rents to me without any hate.

Ehhhh... more likely a B-29 Superfortress as the B-52 Stratofortress didn't fly until two years after the Korean War started. I suppose it COULD have been a B-25 Mitchell from "Dolittle's Raid", but by all accounts the damage to Tokyo from that raid was almost non-existent. For a B-25 to take out "all of the station area" seems unlikely even if the raid had done lots of damage. The B-29s, however, were the ones who conducted the firebombing of Tokyo and I could easily see one of those attacks leveling Shinjuku.

@grjkzz,

Your ability to twist others' words to sound worse than they are is amazing.

Not really amazing at all. I got the same gist from your post without having to "twist" anything. You DID include "petty things" in a sentence describing what the POWs underwent while imprisoned. Unless you were with them as a fellow POW, you don't have the right to describe anything they experienced while POWs as "petty" - or as anything else, for that matter. So unless you were a fellow POW, be a man and own-up to your blunder.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

Glad to see these guys recognize that and have moved on. Wish Japan, SK, and China could all somehow find a way to do it as well..

Same can be said about some Jewish survivors of Nazi Germany. The memories of the holocaust are still fresh in their minds and still bear hatred toward Germans.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Come on.. it was a pow camp. Japan had a hard time feeding its own people.

-2 ( +1 / -3 )

" the horrific destruction of Tokyo" once again painting Japan in the victim light.

Would have preferred "raining fires of liberation all throughout Tokyo with a chance of atomic fission and radiation"

1 ( +1 / -0 )

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