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Ralph Levenberg

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Congress Is Missing in Action for the POWs/MIAs

Posted: 09/16/11 09:18 AM ET

On this National POW/MIA Recognition Day, I am at a loss as to why H. Res. 333 honoring POWs from World War II languishes in the House of Representatives. The Resolution, introduced by Representative Mike Honda (D-CA), thanks the Government of Japan for offering last year an apology to the American POWs of Japan and encourages the Japanese companies that used them as slave labor to follow the example of their government. Most important, it acknowledges the sacrifices of these veterans of whom nearly 40 percent died in merciless captivity.

My story is not much different than many Americans captured by Japan. I was a member of the Army Air Corps stationed on the Philippines when the Japanese invaded in December 1941. I was surrendered by my commanding officers on April 9, 1942 and survived the infamous 65-mile Bataan Death March in the tropical sun with little water and no food. I saw my friends beheaded, bayoneted and beaten to death.

The violence did not end at the POW camps on the Philippines where I helped bury hundreds of fellow POWs who died of disease, abuse, and malnutrition. In 1944, I was shipped to Japan in a Hell Ship, the Nissyo Maru, owned and operated by Mitsui. Nearly 1,600 POWs were herded into the freighter's dark hold and given little food or water. After 17 hellish days with no sanitation or fresh air, we arrived in Moji, Japan.

We were then transported by train to the village of Narumi on the main island of Honshu. The military had sold 200 Americans as property to Nippon Sharyo to labor at its locomotive factory to maintain war production. Both the guards and company employees routinely and capriciously beat us. We subsisted on little food, clothing and medical care. We were never given Red Cross boxes or mail.

Nippon Sharyo profited from our labor. The company, now owned by the Shinkansen operator JR Central, remains one of Japan's principal rail car makers and has robust sales in the United States. It is also a central player in Japan's bid for American high-speed rail contracts.

At Nippon Sharyo, I remember watching a starving Staff Sergeant, Sam Moody, brought to the camp yard after stealing a cup of rice. He was beaten and left to stand at attention in the summer sun with six other POWs. The slightest movement or twitch led to a harsh blow from the passing guards. He stood there for a remarkable 53 hours until he was tossed back into the barracks. Rep. John Mica (R-FL), chair of the House Transportation Committee reprinted Moody's POW memoir to distribute to all visiting veterans.

The abuse, violence, and murders in Nippon Sharyo's Narumi POW camp and factory led to one of the highest number of convicted Japanese war criminals: 22.

But this doesn't make up for the fact that both the Japanese government and its wealthiest companies colluded to enslave tens of thousands of American and Allied POWs, in clear violation of the Geneva Convention. Companies like Mitsui, Mitsubishi, Sumitomo, Kawasaki and Hitachi requested and purchased us from Japan's War Ministry. Often these corporations were more abusive than Imperial Japan's military.

Last September the Japanese government officially apologized to the American POWs and, in March, to the Australian POWs. The government established a provisional visitation program to Japan for U.S. veterans and our descendants -- 15 years after Tokyo had established a similar program for Allied POWs. Although my health prevented me from participating, it was profoundly meaningful for me to know that my fellow POWs who participated in the inaugural visit were treated with kindness and respect. The experience of being a POW and slave laborer for Japan stripped me of my dignity and my youth. It astounds me that Nippon Sharyo and other Japanese corporations neither acknowledge nor apologize for willfully enslaving American forces. But it bothers me more, that members of Congress, many who exhibit POW/MIA flags outside their Capitol Hill offices, hesitate at becoming co-sponsors of H.Res.333.

It is time for Japan's companies to follow their government's lead, and apologize to the POWs and establish a program of remembrance. Our blood and despair helped sustain these companies. I do not want compensation. I simply ask for a genuine apology and that my presence be remembered. But first, Congress must stand by our side.

For more information on HR 333, see this blog on the American POWs of Japan.