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Bataan Death March survivor will be missed by his Japanese friends

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Dr. Lester Tenney, a Bataan Death March survivor, and I exchanged thousands of emails since we first met in 1999. Initially, I became interested in his POW experience as a Japanese journalist. But it did not take long before I found myself working with him to bring an honorable closure to the history of American POWs of the Japanese. Our emails were always upbeat, discussing what more we could do together.

But in late January, Lester sent me an email that was uncharacteristic of him:

I am on my last trip, travel to a new world. So nice having you as a friend. If I am still alive I will be speaking in front of 200 people on January 27th how forgiveness works wonders. If you could come, it would be the culmination of many good years together.

How could I refuse such a request? So I flew from Japan and joined Lester in Carlsbad, Calif. as he spoke to a local audience.

Towards the end of his speech, Lester called me onto the stage and had me read from a letter he had just received from Mitsubishi Materials. It was a report on memorial plaques that the company had placed last November at four mines where its predecessor enslaved American POWs during WWII. Lester wanted me to read the inscription to the audience. After stating how many American POWs were forced to work and how many died at each mine, the inscription ended with following sentence.

Reflecting on these tragic past events with the deepest sense of remorse, Mitsubishi Materials offers its heartfelt apologies to all former POWs who were forced to work under appalling conditions in the mines of the former Mitsubishi Mining Company, and reaffirms its unswerving resolve to contribute to the creation of a world in which fundamental human rights and justice are fully guaranteed.

Lester had already received an apology from the Japanese government for the inhumane treatment American POWs were subjected to. In 2010, the Japanese Foreign Ministry started a reconciliation program in which it invited former POWs and their families to Japan. They all became possible because of Lester’s tenacity in seeking them. I had the privilege of helping him as he faced many obstacles along the way.

What Mitsubishi Materials wrote on their plaques was what Lester wanted the most and what took him the longest to obtain. It was not from Mitsui Mining that enslaved him, but as a longtime leader of former POWs he was genuinely pleased with Mitsubishi Materials’ sincerity.

As we parted, I said to Lester, “Let’s work harder so we will get apologies from other companies.” That was the last time I saw him. I would go back to Carlsbad to attend the memorial service for Lester a month later.

Lester was among some 27,000 American soldiers who became POWs after the largest surrender in the US military history that took place in the Philippines in the spring of 1942.

Forty percent of them would die while in captivity. Those who were surrendered on April 9, including Lester, were forced to walk what became known as the Bataan Death March. Lester was later sent to Japan and became a forced laborer in Mitsui coalmine.

Of some 12,000 American POWs who were sent to Japan to work for Japanese companies 1,115 died due to harsh working conditions, abuse, diseases and malnutrition. In addition to Mitsui Mine and Mitsubishi Mining, they included internationally known companies like Nippon Steel, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Kawasaki Heavy Industries, Nippon Express and Nippon Sharyo (now owned by JR Central).

Lester was determined not to let the world forget this tragic chapter of the Pacific War, although he had long forgiven the Japanese. His lawsuit against Mitsui was dismissed as the U.S. court found that POWs’ claims had been waived by the 1951 Peace Treaty.

But since money was not his goal, he did not stop. In fact, it was through his quest for justice and reconciliation that Lester made many Japanese friends. I witnessed Lester and his wife Betty develop a beautiful friendship with Japanese Ambassador to the U.S. Mr. Ichiro Fujisaki and Mrs. Fujisaki. He dearly loved the Japanese exchange student who stayed at his home. He spoke to thousands of Japanese young people and enjoyed every opportunity to do so. His memoir was translated into Japanese by a group of English teachers in Japan who listened to his speech and were touched by his humanity.

The only thing I regret was that Lester did not receive much support from his own government. Having read the Mitsubishi Materials’ inscription and realized its significance, I asked the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo if Ambassador (Caroline) Kennedy could attend the unveiling ceremony. After all, there was not a single memorial built by the Japanese government for the American POWs who died in Japan.

But the Embassy told me that not only could Ambassador Kennedy not attend but also it could not send anyone to represent the U.S. government.

It was widely reported that Ambassador Kennedy worked very hard to pave the way for President Obama’s visit to Hiroshima.

Candidate Obama compared his campaign to the Bataan Death March and never apologized. This could have been the opportunity for the Obama administration to pay respect to POWs. And it would have encouraged other companies to come forward.

Shortly before his passing, Lester read a piece in the Washington Post that praised Ambassador Kennedy for her effort for reconciliation. He sent a letter to the paper writing in part:

As the last Commander of the American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor, a recognized military organization of former POWs of the Japanese during WWII, I myself as well as our members have been working for reconciliation for many years.

I wish Ambassador Kennedy had supported our effort in seeking reconciliation with those Japanese companies that enslaved us. Most of the companies have not acknowledged their involvement in POW forced labor, much less apologized. So far only one company, Mitsubishi Materials, has come forward and apologized to the American POWs.

I was pleased that Ambassador Kennedy visited Hiroshima and Nagasaki and paid respect to the victims of the end of this tragic war. I wish Ms. Kennedy had also paid tribute to those American POWs who died in Japan as forced laborers.

The letter was never published. But Lester would not live his life with bitterness. In our last exchange ten days before his passing we wrote to each other:

As you did so many times when you faced adversities in your life, I am confident that you two remain positive and live in the present and enjoy everything.  Love, Kinue

You are right… just another hurdle in my life of living. I must realize I am 96 years old, and that is already way beyond the most. It is the unknown that gets me.  Love, Lester

Dr. Lester Tenney will be missed by many Japanese friends he made.

Kinue Tokudome is the founder and director of US-Japan Dialogue on POWs.

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