Mr. Joseph A. Vater, Jr., Esq. (PA)
Chairmen Sanders and Miller, Ranking Members Burr and Michaud, Members of the Senate and House Veterans Affairs Committees, thank you for allowing us to present the concerns of veterans of World War II’s Pacific Theater to Congress. The American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor (ADBC) Memorial Society represents surviving POWs of Japan, their families, and descendants.
In 2009, the Government of Japan belatedly recognized the extraordinary abuse suffered by the American POWs of Japan. An official apology was offered by the Japanese Ambassador to the United States and a course of reconciliation established called the POW/Japan Friendship Program.
Imagine our dismay when we learned that the new Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, may rescind Japan’s war apologies. We naturally worry that the reconciliation effort, the POW/Japan Friendship Program, is also in jeopardy. Although our membership was, understandably, divided on the value of the 2009 apology, a repudiation of the apology and cessation of the popular visitation program would send an unambiguous message of disrespect to the former POWs and harm the U.S.-Japan Alliance.
The U.S. State Department’s involvement was vital to the effort to obtain the apology and to establish the visitation program. It is our hope that Congress will work with the Obama Administration to persuade Japan to hold to its promises and responsibilities. Japan needs to be encouraged to do more.
As way of background, it was at the final convention of the American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor (ADBC) in May 2009 that the Government of Japan through the Japanese Ambassador to the U.S., Ichiro Fujisaki, and then again in 2010 through its Foreign Minister, Katsuya Okada, offered the American POWs of Japan an official apology:
We extend a heartfelt apology for our country having caused tremendous damage and suffering to many people, including prisoners of wars, those who have undergone tragic experiences in the Bataan Peninsula, Corregidor Island, in the Philippines, and other places.
The Japanese Government followed up the apology by initiating a provisional program for American former POWs to visit Japan and return to the places of their imprisonment and slave labor. Nearly all the original Japanese companies that used POW slave labor still exist and often continue to operate facilities at the same sites associated with their assigned POW camps. Thus far, there have been three trips: 2010, 2011, and 2012.
It concerns us that the Abe Administration wants to limit the program to former POWs and possibly end the program this year. Widows, children, and other descendants have also been profoundly affected by the POW experiences of their relatives and they should be included in future programs. We are concerned about how little Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has publicized the program’s accomplishments and goodwill. We are troubled that some Japanese companies have refused to allow our nonagenarian POWs to visit the sites of their imprisonment and slave labor.
The success of the POW/Japan Friendship Program should encourage Japan to do more.
Still we wait for Japan’s great multi-national corporations to acknowledge their use and abuse of POW labor. Still we wait for Japan to create national memorials to the POWs who slaved and died on Japanese soil. Still we wait for memorials for American POWs who died on Japan’s Hellships and in occupied territories outside Japan such as Taiwan, Northeast China, Wake Island, and Guam. And still we wait for Japan to establish a fund to continue this visitation program and to include research, documentation, people-to-people exchanges, and promotion of human rights.
We want to see the trips to Japan continued and to include widows, descendants, and researchers. We want the visitation program to be turned into a permanent program not subject to the Japanese government’s yearly budget review.
Prime Minister Abe is in a unique position to extend and enhance this visitation program. Two of his Cabinet members have family ties to companies that used POW slave labor during the war.
By showing his government’s acknowledgement of the pain inflicted on soldiers of what is now Japan’s closest ally, the United States, Prime Minister Abe can strengthen bilateral relations at a fundamental level. It would engender trust among the Americans tasked with protecting Japan by honoring their veterans, and would signal to Japan’s other wartime victims that meaningful reconciliation is possible.
As you can see from this sampling of impressions by former POWs of their trip to Japan, it has brought closure and peace of mind to those who participated:
This program has really helped my Dad [Harold Bergbower, Past National Commander, ADBC]. For years, Dad would have nightmares after any talk, show, or sometimes just because of his years as a POW. Since our visit his nightmares have gone. I cannot really put in words what that day at the Japanese Factory in Takaoka, Toyama, Japan did. He has not forgotten or totally forgiven but there is now a peace to his remembrance. If you are able please consider participating in this program. My Dad's memory is failing on his daily activities but he continues to recall his trip to Japan. Now when he talks about his POW experience he can now add closure. The audience is amazed at his story. I was honored to go with Dad to Japan. If you are a descendant please talk with your parent about the program. It truly is a life changer.
Mr. James Collier later reflected on the trip to Takaoka, whose natural beauty he had never recognized while being a POW: “After meeting the kind people at JMC and after observing the beautiful surroundings of the city, I realized that I had been robbed of the opportunity of truly knowing this place for the past 66 years. Takaoka had always remained as a dark and depressing place in my mind. Yet this visit has finally afforded me the opportunity to appreciate its beauty.”
Mr. Roy Friese met up with Mr. Kensuke Morooka, Representative of the Association for Recording Air Raids of Omuta. His family home was completely destroyed in the fire-bombing of June 18, 1945. “I remember I saw POWs when I was a boy of thirteen. The skeletal POWs were crammed upright into trucks,” he told Mr. Friese as they shook hands. “The facts of sixty-six years ago should never be forgotten. But instead of animosity, we have to hold onto our belief that stupid wars should never happen again,” said Mr. Morooka. “I had felt various prejudices but they are all gone now,” said Mr. Friese as he left the POW camp site.
More observations by former POWs who have participated in the POW/Japan Friendship Program are on the Outreach section of our website at www.dg-adbc.org. The program is a tangible benefit of the acknowledgement by Japan of some of Imperial Japan’s injustices.
We are grateful for the State Department’s recent efforts to encourage the Japanese government to do the right thing by initiating a process of reconciliation. The irony is that in 1995 the Japanese government established a program of reconciliation and exchange for all former Allied POWs with the exception of American POWs. We hope that Congress will now encourage the State Department to continue to make up for lost opportunities and time.
We ask for Congress and the Obama Administration to insist that Japan maintain its visitation program for former POWs and expand this remarkable program to include family members, to initiate a plan to preserve their history, and support for human rights education.
Thank you for this opportunity to address your committees.