Unusual bond heals wounds over Japan's treatment of POWs

By Elliot Spagat

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, Sept. 11 2010 9:00 p.m. MDT

Lester Tenney, 90, poses with a drawing depicting the Bataan Death March, in Carlsbad, Calif., on Sept. 1.

Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

CARLSBAD, Calif. — Lester Tenney was stunned to receive a call that Japan's new ambassador to the United States 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. The Japanese embassy was closed for the holiday, so Ichiro Fujisaki invited the former POW to his home. The two men and their wives sipped tea. The ambassador asked how he might help.

The unexpected rapprochement led to friendship, and to Sunday'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 American POWs.

Tenney says he plans to bow to the Japanese out of respect and courtesy for the first time as he meets with lawmakers and foreign ministry officials, not out of fear as he did during the war.

"It's going to mean we're finally treated like first-class citizens," Tenney said at his home in a gated retirement community near San Diego, a fountain gurgling in his small Japanese garden.

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?' " the ambassador said in an interview with The Associated Press.

The conversation had been welling in Tenney since April 9, 1942, when the United States surrendered on the Philippines' Bataan Peninsula, ending a four-month battle. Thousands died walking for days in tropical heat to prison camp.

Tenney doesn't remember how many prisoners he saw beheaded, killed by bayonet or shot to death on the infamous Bataan Death March — dozens, perhaps more than 100. Many more died in the next few weeks from disease.

He told the ambassador 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 alive and 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 ate only three small bowls of rice a day. He remembers an American medic who amputated limbs with a steak knife, without anesthetics.

Tenney told the ambassador 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 American POWs.

After darkness fell, Fujisaki opened the taxi door for the Tenneys. The ambassador's wife kissed them goodbye.

As the men exchanged letters over the next few months, Tenney began pressing the ambassador to say a few words at the last annual convention of American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor in May 2009. 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 to the former POWs, that his presence would be enough.

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