American POWs of Japan is a research project of Asia Policy Point, a Washington, DC-based nonprofit that studies the US policy relationship with Japan and Northeast Asia. The project aims to educate Americans on the history of the POW experience both during and after World War II and its effect on the US-Japan alliance.
CARMEN SMYTH/SPECIAL TO THE STAR World War II veteran John Real survived the Bataan Death March. He returned to Japan in October to receive a formal apology from the Japanese government for the treatment American veterans endured.
Contributed photo John Real as a prisoner of war.
514. The numbers haunted him for years.
When John Real left Tokyo in September 1945, nearly every building was burned out. After four years of war, the city was in ruins.
Real never thought he'd return to Japan. He had spent more than three years as a prisoner of war, held captive by aggressive and abusive Japanese troops. He had survived the Bataan Death March — just barely — and was leaving the country weighing slightly more than 100 pounds. When he boarded the troop transport ship bound for San Francisco, he didn't look back. He returned to his home in Ojai, moved on with his life, married, raised three children, and only talked about the war when asked.
Then came the invitation.
In April, after being placed on a list, Real was contacted by a representative of the Japanese/American P.O.W. Friendship Program. The Japanese government was asking Real to travel to Tokyo to take part in a 10-day series of speaking engagements to educate area university students and civilians alike about a war that seemed to have been forgotten. And in the middle of it all, Real was to accept a formal apology for the treatment he received as a prisoner of war.
The opportunity seemed the chance of a lifetime, coming 70 years after he was first captured by the Japanese. Now 90, the idea of returning to Japan was something the Ventura resident felt he needed to do.
The fight to stay alive
Real volunteered for active duty in the Army Air Corps in April 1940, more than 18 months before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. He was 18 at the time. He packed his bags and was sent to Fort MacArthur, Calif., as part of the 2nd Observation Squadron. The young airman had a few choices: Hawaii, Alaska, Panama, or the Philippines. He chose the Philippines.
After completing the required training, Real traveled to San Francisco and boarded a troop transport ship bound for Clark Field, approximately 80 miles north of Manila. Combat was a threat, and war was inevitable. The day after the bombing of Pearl Harbor proved chaotic for the men already serving in the Pacific.
"When things started to get bad at Clark Field, they sent us to Bataan thinking we could recover and beat the Japanese there," Real said in a 2009 interview. "They were supposed to have supplies waiting for us, but when we got there, there was nothing. The Japanese knew exactly where we were and what we were doing."
The order to retreat to Bataan led to three months of heavy fighting and an eventual surrender from the American and Filipino troops. Real was stationed in an observation tower at the time of the surrender. After making the eight-mile walk down the mountain from the tower, all he could do was pray that he would survive. It was April 9, 1942.
"When I got down to the Japanese guards, they asked for everything I had," Real said in 2009. "They took my watch, my ring, blankets and my mess kit. Everything."
They began what was an approximate 60-mile walk to San Fernando. Any man that fell out of line was killed. For every one American killed, Real said, two Filipinos were killed.
The first stretch of what had become the Bataan Death March lasted five days. There was no food or water. Dysentery spread quickly, claiming the lives of many prisoners. Those who survived were packed like cattle into a boxcar on a train for a two-day trip to Camp O'Donnell, a prison camp in Tarlac in the Philippines.
Real fought to keep his health so he could qualify for a labor assignment. If the Japanese could use him to work, his chances of surviving the war were much higher. But living conditions were poor, and intake was arguably worse. Real contracted Malaria, and was unable to continue labor assignments. He recovered, but was sent to Cabanatuan, a prison camp to the east of Camp O'Donnell. An assignment to Cabanatuan, for most, was a death sentence.
After recovering enough to work again, Real was ordered to board a ship bound for a prison camp in Niigata, Japan. Conditions were just as poor as the other camps. There was no medication, and food rations remained scarce. Three meals a day consisted of soybeans and barley. Real was assigned to work on nearby docks with a company called Rinko Coal. He'd unload ships, then load trains bound for inland destinations. The prisoners never saw a penny of the wages they earned. Rinko had seemingly made a deal to pay all earnings to the Japanese government.
Real stayed in Niigata for the remainder of the war. He has vivid memories of the day in August 1945 when he saw American B-29s flying over the camp. He never knew their mission until he and the other prisoners realized the Japanese guards had fled. The atomic bombs had been dropped, and the war had ended.
Contributed photo John Real (center) is pictured in Japan with his son, Gregory, (left) and U.S. Ambassador to Japan, John V. Roos.
Returning to Niigata
When Real headed to Los Angeles International Airport in October with his son, Gregory, they had only an agenda to give them an idea of what to expect in Japan. Between their first class seating assignments, and the warm welcome they received in Tokyo, Real was experiencing a much different Japan than he had seven decades before.
"They were wonderful in accommodating us," Real said. "It was over the top. They really went out of their way."
The city itself was unrecognizable. Broken and destitute when Real left in 1945, Tokyo was now thriving.
The third trip of its kind, seven former prisoners of war, including Real, were greeted by students at an extension of Temple University, and by guests at museums, all waiting to hear the firsthand accounts of events most knew nothing about. Some questions proved difficult. How do you justify the atomic bomb? Somehow amid the resentment from a much younger generation, Real found himself relating, responding with how he felt when Pearl Harbor was bombed. Gregory said that the comparison — and Real's understanding approach — seemed to ease the crowd. He admitted that there is no easy answer.
After a visit to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Japan National Press Club, and an apology from government officials, Real learned of a unique opportunity organized just for him — a trip to Rinko Coal and the docks of Niigata.
"No one from the company came out to talk to us," Gregory Real said. "I know it's a sensitive subject."
But even with the silence from Rinko Coal, Real stood overlooking the docks and was able to find peace in what had only been an unyielding supply of bad memories.
There were also the mortuary records.
For the first time, Real saw the official death notices of two friends from Ventura County with whom he enlisted. Bob Pierpont, who was killed on a Hell Ship en route to Niigata, and Lewis Hayes who died of malnutrition in Cabanatuan. He had run into both men in the beginning of their imprisonment. He saw Hayes just days before he died.
Between Niigata and the mortuary records, the trip had become more than an opportunity to rebuild a relationship with Japan. It thrust the realities of war back to the forefront of Real's mind, and provided proof that perhaps the memory of those who died, like Pierpont and Hayes, weren't lost when the war ended.
514 — the numbers that once identified Real as a nameless prisoner are now on file among Japanese historical documents — a permanent record of one man's fight to stay alive.