President Obama will visit Hiroshima later this month as the first sitting U.S. President to do so.
The following essay was written by a World War II veteran and POW.
In it Mr. Tenney relates his experiences while serving as an important contributor to the overall successful Pacific War effort of the United States led Allied forces.
He, like so many other Americans during that time, is a true American hero who more than did his part in helping to win the ongoing and never ending fight for our individual freedoms.
Remembering More Than Hiroshima is subtitled 'We must not forget the lives lost and trauma incurred by Allied forces during the Pacific War:'
A black man was the first American soldier to die in World War II. An unexploded bomb from a Mitsubishi “Betty” split U.S. Army Pvt. Robert Brooks in two on December 8, 1941, as he ran to the machine gun on his half-track at Clark Field in the Philippines. Like me, he was a member of the 192nd Tank Battalion preparing to fight the invading Imperial Japanese forces. It is fitting that our first black president will soon stand at Hiroshima, where the Pacific War began its end.
Pvt. Brooks’s sacrifice and those of thousands of American and Allied forces who fought and died for freedom in the Pacific must never be forgotten. What Hiroshima represents is more than the effects of a nuclear weapon. It is the culmination of a war started by Imperial Japan and conducted with gross inhumanity, a war in which more civilians died than combatants.
It would be wrong for the president to pivot away from this history and use his visit solely to discuss aspirations for a world without nuclear weapons. Hiroshima highlights mankind’s tragic ability to wreak terrible destruction, and this destruction was not caused exclusively by atomic bombs. Sand-filled bamboo sticks, bayonets, plague-inflected fleas, starvation and rape—methods of warfare used by Japan—are also destructive.
When President Harry Truman announced the bombing of Nagasaki, which ended the war, he recognized “the tragic significance of the atomic bomb.” However, he went on to explain “we have used it against those who attacked us without warning at Pearl Harbor, against those who have starved, beaten and executed American prisoners of war, against those who have abandoned all pretense of obeying international laws of warfare. We have used it in order to shorten the agony of war, in order to save the lives of thousands and thousands of young Americans.”
As a former American POW of Japan, I am particularly sensitive to these words. Truman was looking out for me and more than 27,000 other American POWs in Asia. Until then, we felt forgotten and ignored. The “Europe first” policy of Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill abandoned us to fight without resupply or reinforcement on the Philippines at the start of World War II. We became POWs for more than three bitter years.
We endured four unforgiving months of tank warfare in the tropical heat on Bataan against an enemy with superior training, equipment and provisions. Surrendered by our commanders, nearly 80,000 of us American and Filipino troops were forced on the Bataan Death March. The surviving 68,000 arrived at Camp O’Donnell, a prison camp that saw up to 300 die daily.
The camp commandant ranted at us that we were lower than dogs and better off dead, as we would always be enemies of Japan. I must say that many times I had to agree.
After a period in the camp, many of us went by “hell ship” to Japan to become slave laborers. In my case, it was in a dilapidated Mitsui coal mine. My friend from Janesville, Wis., Capt. Fred Bruni, had a different experience. He and 150 men from the camp were sent to Palawan Island to build an airfield. Upon completion, all the men were set afire and machine-gunned by the Kempeitai.
We POWs have tried to preserve this history despite U.S. and Japanese government efforts to suppress it. Upon liberation, most of us were forced to sign gag orders not to discuss the horrors of our imprisonment. The U.S. government’s policy was to pacify Japan in part by curbing memories of its war atrocities. Central to the 1952 San Francisco Peace Treaty is an article foreclosing any further compensation of victims, thus again preventing the recall of Imperial Japan’s past crimes and abuses.
At home, an underfunded Veterans Administration refused to give us full disability and ignored or misunderstood the aftereffects of vitamin deficiency, tropical diseases and trauma. It took two acts of Congress before we received any compensation for our imprisonment and only at a rate of $1.50 per day for lost meals.
The U.S. government abandoned the Pacific War’s history. This has made efforts to hold Japanese companies accountable for their brutal use of POW slaves nearly impossible. It is taboo to associate high-speed rails, luxury automobiles or Washington’s metro cars with companies that once abused Americans. Among the nearly 60 well-known companies such as Mitsui, Mitsubishi, Sumitomo, Kawasaki and Nippon Sharyo, only the Mitsubishi Materials Company, which used POWs in four of its mines, has apologized.
In recent years the Japanese government has finally begun to make amends to American POWs. They offered an official apology in 2009. At the Obama administration’s urging, they established in 2010 a reconciliation program for former POWs to visit Japan. Unfortunately the program will end this year without any follow-up for descendants or the public.
But history is critical to how we understand ourselves. No one knew Pvt. Brooks’s race until the Army wanted to honor him. When news of his death reached Fort Knox, the chief of the armored force, Gen. Jacob Devers, decided that a parade ground should be named in his memory, because the first American tanker to die in World War II should not be forgotten.
When it was discovered that Pvt. Brooks’s parents were black tenant farmers from Sadieville, Ky., the general was asked if he wanted to reconsider. “No,” he answered, “it did not matter whether or not Robert was black, what mattered was that he had given his life for his country.” As Gen. Devers said at the Brooks Field dedication ceremony, “In death there is no grade or rank. And in this greatest democracy the world has ever known, neither riches nor poverty, neither creed nor race, draws a line of demarcation in this hour of national crisis.”
Mr. Obama wants to use his visit to Hiroshima to highlight the perils of nuclear war. But this is not the only lesson. Our service as veterans of the Pacific War needs to be remembered and not abandoned to some tumid oratory. The president’s visit to Hiroshima will be hollow, a gesture without motion, if the Pacific War’s full history is not maintained. Hiroshima does not and cannot exist outside the context of the Asia-Pacific War and all its dead.
Mr. Tenney was a member of the 192nd Tank Battalion, Company B that defended the Philippines in World War II. He lives in San Diego."
History is a great teacher, and we should one and all listen carefully to what truths it has to share.
Because it really is true that the only thing new in the world is the history we haven't yet learned.
Thank you for your service and for the great American history lesson, Mr. Tenney.