Friday, June 5, 2009

After The Death Marches

World War II saw many death marches. The Bataan Death March was one of many forced treks Japan's Imperial Army imposed on its prisoners of war. In some respects, it may be the most famous because it had the most survivors and witnesses.

Like so many of Japan's war crimes, the marches were all strikingly similar in conception and execution. No matter where in the Pacific Theater, Imperial troops with their Korean and Formosan conscripts inflicted horrors upon those in their care. Neither disdain nor indifference succeeds in explaining the inhumanity.

The Sandankan Death Marches in North Borneo match if not surpass the miseries of Bataan. Of the 2400 Australian and British POWs involved, only 6 Australians survived. Originally, moved to Sandankan to build an airfield, many POWs in January 1945 were forced to began a series of marches away from possible Allied landings on the island. This was partly to dispose of them and partly to use the survivors as mules for a retreat. Those left in the camp were murdered.

This atrocity was considered so infamous that in the movie, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence about a Japanese POW camp on Java, the director included an indirect reference to it. Toward the end of the film, one group of Australian prisoners was marched off to "build an airfield." It was a subtle reference to more horrors to come in a film about confusing Japanese brutality, male honor and homosexuality. The movie, starring David Bowie, was based on a moving book on war and forgiveness by Larens van der Post, The Seed and the Sower.*

On the Western Front, the best known Death March of POWs was only recently recognized. This was by 350 mostly Jewish American POWs who unlike other POWs of the Third Reich were sent to a concentration camp, Berga, a subcamp of Buchenwald. In the last months of the war, these POWs became slave laborers building air defense tunnels. It was "death through work" one of the survivors said. Like the Japanese, the Nazis tried to hide these starving and sick POWs by marching them away from the advancing American forces. And like the in the Japanese POWs, nearly one-third of the POWs perished.

It was very unusual for American POWs to treated like this by the Nazis. Although typical for POWs of Japan, this appears to be the only case where Americans were slave laborers for the German military. The typical death rate in German POW camps was one and one-half percent, unlike in Japan's POW camps, which was over 30%.

Unique to these POWs, is that they were finally compensated for their work and suffering. Because Berga was a concentration camp** and not a POW camp, these POWs received settlements from the German Foundation "Remembrance, Responsibility, and the Future" Fund as well as some an award from a lawsuit against the German Government. Neither have been options for the American POWs of Japan.

Similar to the American POWs of Japan, the survivors of Berga were also forced to sign gag orders threatening prosecution if they talked about their experiences. They also were ignored by the US Government and their stories suppressed. Just this year new photos of the graves at Berga surfaced.

This weekend, the US Army, pressured by Congress, will honor the surviving Berga veterans. Maj. Gen. Vincent Boles is to present these men with some sort of special recognition and an explanation as to why the US government commuted the death sentences of the two Berga commanders, Erwin Metz and his superior, Hauptmann Ludwig Merz.

As noted below, last weekend the Japanese government made its first step toward apologizing to and acknowledging the American POWs of Japan. Unfortunately, the Foreign Ministry nor the Japanese Embassy in the US have not published any press release nor transcript of the Japanese Ambassador's apology. More surprising, the Japanese press has not reported the story. Even the Mainichi Shimbun reporter present did not have his story published.

Maybe soon, the Pentagon will so honor the POW survivors of Japan's death marches and explain too why so many camp commanders and guards were never executed or prosecuted. This is not just for the American POWs, but also for Japan. The Japanese need to understand that these apologies matter and that these histories with its most important ally cannot be ignored, nor remain unexamined.

Later: Here is the CNN Report on this past weekend's Berga reunion attended by Maj. Gen. Vincent Boles, an emissary from the Army. He told the group that "These men were abused and put under some of the most horrific conditions, It wasn't a prison camp. It was a slave labor camp." As one Berga survivor responded, "It means a great deal -- that it's being recognized and understood."

*Strangely, Japanese pop idol Utada took the award winning music from the movie and produced a completely unseemly and irrelevant song
**As an aside, recent scholarship on Nazi concentration and extermination camps have found that the number of 5,000 to 7,000 to be conservative. The count is more than 20,000.

1 comment:

  1. Yes, you are so right.
    The Japanese need a discussion or some kind of focus on what their grandfathers did. History in the sense of inquiry, does not exist here, rather the past is a tool to shape modern opinion. Sometimes I am brought up in surprise; a fantastically wealthy company president going on at a private dinner about a recent best seller "My Hitler", a 45 year old acquaintance who works in the media babbling away about how the country was forced into the war, the mayor of my city running on about the baneful effect of western democracy.


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