Testimony at the U.S. House of Representatives on 25 September 2002

Remarks by Dr. Lester I Tenney before the House Judiciary Committee
Subcommittee on Immigration, Border Security and Claims
Wednesday, September 25, 2002 at 2:00 P.M.
Room 2237 of the Rayburn House Office Building

at a booksigning

Dr. Lester I. Tenney (pow@gtenney.com) is a survivor of the Bataan Death March as an American POW during WW II. After surviving that, he ended up working as slave-labor in a coal mine near Nagasaki until the end of WW II.

His autobiography of that time is titled "My Hitch in Hell".
Click here to purchase this book (hardcover) in association with Amazon.com (it's now available in paperback). Note that the hardcover book may now only be available as a collector's item.

Mr. Chairman and Members of the Committee:

I am honored to have been invited here today to share with the Committee my personal experiences and concerns regarding the issue at hand and to urge passage of H.R. 1198, the "Justice for U.S. POWs Act of 2001."

Thank you for this opportunity to tell you why we need Congress' assistance in resolving our claims against the Japanese companies that used us as slave laborers during World War II.

{After testimony was heard by the State and Justice Department} Mr. Taft, Mr. McCallum, thank you for your kind words in recognizing the role we former POWs played in defending America. But like my Mother has often said, "Actions speak louder than words." I also noted your intentional failure to mention the Netherlands when referring to countries that made other Treaties with Japan. Could it be because of the letter signed by the Prime Minister of Japan to the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands on September 9, 1951 providing them with greater benefits than those giving to other signers of the Treaty?

Mr. Chairman, members of the committee. I am one of the few survivors of the Bataan Death March that began on April 9, 1942. The experience is as real to me today as it was sixty years ago, when I endured the daily beatings, the torture, and all the atrocities associated with that infamous starvation march across the peninsula. I am here to speak not only of the brutality and suffering we endured then, but the frustration we have encountered ever since.

Unfortunately, it wasn't enough, Mr. Chairman, that we, the fighting forces on Bataan, had defended against an overwhelming Japanese offensive for more than four months, three months longer than anyone had predicted we could, as our supplies of food and ammunition ran dry. It wasn't enough that promised provisions, desperately needed to hold our ground, never arrived. It wasn't enough that the U.S. government made a conscious and deliberate decision to sacrifice we young men and women - many still in their teens - who willingly gave everything they had for their country. Then digging in, knowing that every day we could stall the Japanese offensive, our Army could rebuild elsewhere, and Japan's planned invasion of Australia could be thwarted.

We were abandoned at Bataan. Our government surrendered our troops. In March 1942, President Roosevelt, during his Fireside chat, tried to explain this unfortunate event to the American public. He said that there are times during war when a Government is forced to make a decision to sacrifice some of its warriors for the benefit of the over-all effort.

We were sacrificed, Mr. Chairman. We were sent to Bataan to do what our great Nation had asked us to do. We did it without question and with all the courage we could muster. And as our food and ammunition ran out and our position was surrendered, we quickly came to realize that those who had perished in the fight were, in some ways, the fortunate ones.

Day after day, on that march, I watched in utter helplessness as hundreds of my friends - many who had become brothers - were shot, bayoneted, decapitated, and in some cases buried alive. I listened to their cries, their last requests, and the unspeakable sadness that comes to a man when he realizes he will never again see his family. I promised not to let the world forget their pain and suffering, I promised to make their passing easier, but that I couldn't.

Mr. Chairman, no man can describe what we endured. Those strong enough to survive The March were sent to Japan on "Hell Ships." I was one of them. Numb and barely alive, I took strength from my brave friends around me, from my family that I knew was praying for me at home, and from my love for America - a love that remains undiminished throughout these many years.

Can you begin to feel how we felt? But still, it wasn't enough. In Japan, we were enslaved, not held as prisoners of war, as international laws and military protocol dictate, but were enslaved - forced into mines that were collapsing, and steel mills and loading docks too dangerous to work at. In my case, I was forced to work in a coal mine owned by the industrial giant, Mitsui, who allotted me a bare 500 calories of rice each day, and the medical care was practically non-existent. It was in the coal mine where I was beaten, many times almost to the point of death. My back and shoulder were broken, my teeth knocked out, my nose and head split wide open, all of this done by the civilians working for Mitsui, and done on a regular basis. The real torture was being forced to watch my friends die. I remember my dear friend Andy Pavalockis who was placed in the guard house, starved for thirty days, then taken out and beaten until he died. And why? Because he didn't work fast enough for shoveling coal. In addition my two friends, Wally Cigoi and Bob Bronge, who had saved my life on The Bataan March, they also died a needless death.. How I wish I could have saved them during our enslavement. But nothing could have helped them

But it's not enough that they died, that we were never given an apology, and no sorrow was every shown, and these industrial giants that enslaved us went on to become multi-national corporations of the 21st century. It's not enough that thousands of us labored and suffered and died, and that these corporations have attained unimaginable prosperity. For, in addition to all this, our government - the government of the land we love, that we fought and died for, and that had abandoned us on Bataan - is now standing in the way of justice. It is our government that is assisting these industrial giants who refuse to apologize or show remorse.

As soldiers, sailors and Marines we were able to deal with our government's decision to abandon us at Bataan. We were sworn to defend our country at all costs. Death and imprisonment we knew, was a part of war. And we faced this challenge with courage and honor, proud to do whatever we had to do. But as respectable and honorable human beings, we were never prepared for slavery, for the humiliation and inhumanity of being placed in the abusive servitude of private profit-making companies - companies that to this day have never publicly acknowledged what they did or asked for forgiveness for their atrocities. These corporations were unjustly enriched. They built empires on our labor. And they caused many of my friends to die.

Now their heinous crimes are compounded as they hide behind the rhetoric of some within our own government who incorrectly believe that a few lines written in an agreement long ago rob us - those who suffered as slave laborers - of our Constitutional rights. This, Mr. Chairman, is wrong. And, they cannot stand behind their misinterpretation of the facts. For all that is just and right about this great country of ours, it cannot be allowed to stand as said.

We, the defenders of Bataan and Corregidor were sacrificed once. We should not be sacrificed again. The first is understandable. The second would be unconscionable. Our rights as veterans are being denied us for the benefit of a few multi-billion dollar private, profit-making corporations, who were responsible for enslaving us during World War II.

What's troubling to us today is that this is exactly what's happening, and it open's wounds you will never be able to fully know. Our cause is about companies being responsible for their actions, it's about justice, justice denied us for such a long time, and it's about the respect and human dignity that was taken from us many years ago. You see, Mitsui stole my honor, they robbed me of my dignity, and they tried to force me to lose faith in my country. Well they thought they won, but they did not, for I never lost faith in my country or my God.

Since the war ended, other former POWs, and I have tried to pursue claims against these companies because we know we were treated inhumanely. But at every turn, our State Department has voluntarily come to the aid of these Japanese corporations. Even in 1946, when I sought information about my rights, the State Department gave an evasive answer. In response to my letter dated September 11, 1946, the State Department on September 20, 1946 wrote:

"With a view to rendering as much governmental assistance as possible to former prisoners, or their next of kin, and in order to obviate the necessity of their employing representatives or committees or associations to prepare their claims, representatives of the Department of State, War, Justice and Navy are currently engaged in devising procedures and in the preparation of official forms for the use of claimants who may desire to submit, for possible future consideration claims against enemy countries."

The State Department's letter ended with the following sentence, "Provision for the settlement of claims of labor performed by prisoners are for future legislative consideration."

For 56 years, I have endeavored to obtain the meaning of this correspondence. The best I can come up with is two important points: First, the State Department urged us not to retain the services of counsel or obtain advice from any of the military service organizations. Second, our government leaders, through legislative procedures, were going to assist us in our quest for justice.

But here we are, almost six decades later, still waiting - waiting for the State Department to honor its commitment - hoping that we will not once again be abandoned by the government we love and respect so very much. And, Mr. Chairman, we have been waiting just as long for the Japanese companies to come forward and do the right thing. I can assure you, I never imagined I'd be here today testifying in front of this Committee 60 years after I became a POW on Bataan. But, despite our repeated efforts to resolve our claims directly with these international companies, such as Mitsui and Mitsubishi, they have all refused.

So, finally, unable to wait any longer, in August of 1999, I, along with other former POWs sought justice in the California courts. Time was running out on us. But, once again, we were disappointed. The State Department immediately began to inject themselves into our cases, while at the same time our ranks continued to die. In fact, since that day in August - only three years ago - we have lost thirty percent of the survivors of Bataan and Corregidor, over 1,000 former prisoners of the Japanese, not here for the justice we are seeking. And everyday we lose more. In fact, each month that justice is denied us, another fifty survivors will die, and this loss will increase over the years exponentially until there are no survivors left. That is why I am here today. If Congress doesn't assist us now, I fear none of us will live to see the justice we deserve.

For the life of me, I cannot understand why the State Department is so opposed to our seeking justice from the private companies that mistreated us during the war. I strongly emphasis, our claims are not against the Japanese government or the Japanese people, but against large multinational conglomerates that are headquartered in Japan and doing business here in the United States.

I realize that the State Department takes the position that the 1951 Treaty signed with Japan bars our claims. But, I also know that several well-regarded international law professors, including Professor John Rogers of the University of Kentucky, believe the Treaty does not bar those claims. And, I believe Professor Rogers is now likely to become a judge on the 6th Circuit, so I guess he must have some respect here in Washington. I hope Congress will read Professor Rogers' and the other testimony from the Senate hearing held on these issues two years ago.

Then of course we have the written opinion by Michael D. Ramsey, Professor of Law, University of San Diego Law School. Professor Ramsey after researching this issue states that, "On the basis of the State Departments argument I do not believe the Treaty extinguishes the private claims of individual U.S. citizens against private Japanese companies.".

If you check out the professor's research, you'll see that there are several reasons why the Treaty does not bar our claims, including those of Article 26 of the Treaty.

This provision, which is typically called the "most favored nations" clause, states that if Japan makes a better deal with any other country, then they have to automatically provide that same opportunity to all the signatories of the Treaty, including the United States. At the Senate hearing, Professor Maier of Vanderbilt Law School explained that citizens in at least eight countries have received greater benefits than we have. I don't understand why the State Department is still denying the facts when they seem so clear.

In this regards please allow me to share with you some very disturbing information that just came to my attention. Disturbing enough that I am sure you will see the hidden agenda in this action. In June, of the year 2000 a request was made under the Freedom of Information Act with the State Department requesting documents dealing with issues of the Peace Treaty. This was done so that we would be better prepared to deal properly with our cause of action against those Japanese companies that enslaved so many. The State Department had the audacity and the gall to petition the court to give them until December 31, 2003 to answer and comply with our request.

Mr. Chairman, to be forced to wait thirty months is an injustice, it is an indication that the State Department has something to hide, it shows a total lack of concern for its citizens. What they have done is a travesty of Justice.

I am concerned because the average age of we veterans is 84 years old, we don't have much time left, and making us wait two and a half years for some documents is unconscionable and demeaning and shows the State Department's true color. It appears to me that the actions of the State Department indicate that they are trying to redefine the meaning of Justice and Honor.

It is especially troubling now that our leaders are again asking our nation's young men and women to put their lives in harm's way, to be willing to risk all in the name of freedom. Their request comes with the implied promise that for what they will give, they will never be forgotten. Yet here before you today is a case where veterans of a war fought long ago have been forgotten, forsaken and even insulted as certain members of their government assist the wealthy corporations that enslaved them years ago.

What message is being sent to our young people as they learn that the same leaders who are sending them to faraway lands are denying us the right to pursue our claims? Is this the message we want our men and women in Afghanistan, or possibly in Iraq, to carry in the back of their minds?

Mr. Chairman, we can no longer afford to try to understand the motives of the Japanese companies or the State Department. With our ranks dying at such a rapid rate, we cannot wait. Today we ask you for the support necessary to provide us with our long sought justice. We are asking you to let our courts decide what responsibility these multi-billion dollar companies have for past crimes. Let the courts make the decision. Back in 1951 members of the State Department wrote the text of the Treaty, now fifty years later different people in a new department are trying to define what was written. I don't believe we should let the Fox guard the hen house. Let the courts determine the true meaning of the Treaty including Article 26, a most important part of the Treaty.

Article 26 was no doubt included because the State Department realized that Japan, in their desire for more support from other countries, may have decided to provide greater benefits to these other countries, and Article 26. when applied, would provide the U.S. the right to those same benefits.

That is all we ask, Mr. Chairman.. It is all we want. We want nothing more than what is fair and just. It will heal open wounds and restore integrity to the greatest government on earth and it will reaffirm promises to those now serving.

I strongly believe that forgiveness and responsibility goes hand in hand, and Mr. Chairman, if these violators of our human rights wants forgiveness, they must first face their responsibility and act to remedy their wrong.

Please support us in our claims and please support H.R.1198, the "Justice for U.S. POWs Act of 2001."

Mr. Chairman, Members of the Committee, we former prisoners of war were very proud of the medals we were awarded while defending our Country's freedom, but they have very little meaning if the Government of today, denies us the rights we fought for yesterday.

I'm looking for no sympathy, nor seeking any glory, all I want is Justice.

We were there for our country when they needed us, now we need our country to be there for us. Mr. Chairman, members of the committee, I surrendered once; I will not surrender again.

Thank you.

You can purchase Dr. Tenney's book in association with Amazon.com



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(Speaking of World War II, here's another interesting book I've read: Between Silk and Cyanide   Written by the man who was in charge of agent's codes for MI8 during WWII. -- Glenn)

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This page last updated June 10, 2003

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