Monday, September 05, 2011

Oh Australia

On September 1, the Australian government again honored its former POWs of Japan. Due to the efforts of former Japanese POW and parliamentarian Tom Uren, 90, all surviving POWs of WWII and the Korean War will receive a fortnightly grant of AU$500 ($US$530) for the next four years. In 2001, Australia’s POWs of Japan had also been awarded a one-off ex-gratia payment of AU$25,000.

American POWs of Japan in 1948 simply received a $1 per day compensation for the days they were prisoners. A few who received letters of notification (many did not as they had moved) received an extra $1.50 per day in 1952. American POWs unlike their Canadian, Australian, British, New Zealand, Isle of Man, Dutch, and Norwegian fellow POWs of Japan, never received extra services, compensation, or recognition for their brutal experience.

Australia’s new bonus payment was approved in May as part of Prime Minister Julia Gillard 2011-12 Federal Budget. It will cost AU$27.1 million. The payment will be tax-free, indexed annually to inflation and exempt from the income test, meaning it will not affect pensions or any other benefits the veterans receive.

The Prime Minister justified this extra expenditure by saying that it
acknowledges the severe hardship suffered by our former POWs. POWs were particularly subjected to horrific conditions and many returned home with physical and psychological scars that will stay with them for the rest of their lives.
Uren convinced Prime Minister Julia Gillard in January that Australian POWs of Japan suffered more than most soldiers and died at a much greater rate than other veterans. Those few still surviving—623—had watched the erosion of their conditions and benefits as they aged and the country became complacent. Uren had been captured by the Japanese in Timor in 1942 and mined coal as a POW slave laborer at Mitsui’s infamous Fukuoka #17 Omuta POW camp mine with Lester Tenney (Tenneberg)

Those Australian POWs who came back from the war in the Pacific, died at four times the rate of other veterans between 1945 and 1954, due mainly to the brutality they suffered under the Japanese. Uren said that securing the payments for the surviving few was not so much about the money. ''It's about giving credit to the service of our people,'' he said. ''It's justice and compassion, that's what this recognises. It recognises the suffering of our people.''

Former POW Norm Anderton who slaved on the Thai-Burma Death Railway said the $500 bonus payment to him and his comrades is "bloody great news" - and he reckons there wouldn't be too many Australians who would begrudge the Government's gesture.

In early March, Anderton was one of five former POW “Diggers” (Australian soldiers) who visited as Japan guests of the Japanese governent. They met with the then-Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara on March 3rd, privately offering them an apology for the horrors they endured under Japanese control. The Australians accepted it as the first ever official apology. Maehara, unlike his predecessor Okada who received American POWs in September 2010, refused to have TV cameras or reporters present during this important moment.  As you can see in this video, cameras were present as he greeted the POWs at the Foreign Ministry.

During the trip, the Japanese government also agreed to release over 21,000 index cards of POW records. The hope is to identify the hundreds of Australian POWs never accounted for, especially those on the Montevideo Maru. No such offer was made to the American POWs of Japan.

In November 2010, then-Foreign Minister Maehara visited Australia and made an unusual side trip that was not reported in the Japanese press. He visited the Australia War Museum and Memorial to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Australian Solider and to stand silently and bow before the statue of Sir Edward "Weary" Dunlop. Dr Dunlop (1907-93) was the best known of the doctors who ministered to Australian prisoners held by Japan. A doctor on the infamous Thai-Burma Death Railroad where nearly 3,000 Australians died, he is immortalized in a large bronze statue in the War Memorial grounds. Although it is now de rigueur to visit the War Memorial, Maehara is likely the first Japanese Foreign Minister to honor Weary Dunlop.

Despite these important gestures of reconciliation and healing, it must be noted that neither the Australian POW delegation nor the American POW delegation— and by implication their governments—were able to get Japan’s official apology for its maltreatment of POWs in writing and available to the press. No copy of the wording of that apology has subsequently been made public.

And in terms of gestures, House passage of H.Res. 333, which simply honors the American POWs of Japan for their efforts toward justice, is the least Congress can do for its POWs of Japan in light of Australia's recent tribute to its surviving POWs.

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