Monday, November 12, 2012

Veterans Day 2012

To you from failing hands we throw the Torch;
be yours to hold it high.
 If ye break faith with us who die, we shall not sleep, 
though poppies grow in Flanders Fields

Returning to Japan after 70 years

This article appeared in the Ventura County Star on November 11, 2012, Veterans Day.
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.
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.
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.
To read a more detailed account of John Real's experiences in World War II, visit

Friday, November 09, 2012

Remembering Bataan & Corregidor

In late April of this year, five former POWs of Japan who fought on Bataan and Corregidor visited Washington, DC to commemorate these historic battles. Congressmen Mike Honda (D-CA), Brian Bilbray (R-CA), and Bill Huizenga (R-MI) were the only members of Congress to greet these veterans.

However, these members of America's greatest generation made a big impression on the people they did meet at the National Guard Association, the Heritage Foundation, the State Department, and the World War II memorial. As you will see in this video, young people are eager to meet and learn from them.

We have extensive video footage of the visit to Washington former by these former POWs of Japan, which we would like to turn into a a short documentary. Your contributions to help make this happen are much needed.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Dialogue with Former US Prisoners of War in Japan

On October 15, 2012, Temple University in Japan's Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies (ICAS) hosted the seven former POWs of Japan during their visit to Japan hosted by Japan's Foreign Ministry. This was the third visitation program for American former POWs, which includes an apology delivered personally by the Foreign Minister for their abuse and suffering. You can find detailed biographies of these men HERE.

For an excellent review of this trip to Japan see the US-Japan Dialogue on POWs.

Sunday, November 04, 2012

The Elections and the POWs/MIAs

If you have wondered about where the various candidates for national office stand on issues affecting the American POWs/MIAs of Japan, HERE is a list of legislation that is related to issues affecting the history and memory of those involved in WWII in the Pacific. You can thus see for yourself how your incumbent member of congress voted or the legislation he/she was willing to co-sponsor. By clicking on the highlighted bill number, you can find all the details of the legislation including who are its co-sponsors.

For those who do not think they will go out and vote, HERE is some inspiration from several former POWs of Japan, who have a special appreciation of the American freedom to vote.

Overall, the record is pretty grim. The 112th Congress (a Congress is every two years) appears to have lost its memory. For the first time, Congress did not pass a resolution honoring the memory of the fallen at Pearl Harbor. This was particular disappointing as last December was the 70th Anniversary. You can find the President’s Proclamation HERE.

The award of a collective gold medal to the first African Americans of the Marine Corps known during WWII as the Montford Point Marines was achieved only by a roll call vote. This means every member had to put him/herself on the record. Overall there has been legislation introduced honoring those of America’s greatest generation, but few members of congress have been willing to support it and almost none of the legislation has gotten out of committee for a floor vote.

Some experts believe this is because there are few veterans now in Congress. In the House of Representatives there are only 92 veterans. The simple fact is that veterans no longer represent a large voting group. To ignore their issues consequently holds no political risk.

In regard to the presidential race, it should be noted that President Obama was the first president and first administration to ask (and insist) the Japanese to honor the memory of the American POWs of Japan. The President’s grandfather was a WWII vet. Governor Romney has not said anything about the POWs. Neither he nor any of his five sons are veterans. His running mate, Paul Ryan, hails from Janesville, Wisconsin that is home of the Janesville 99. This group of activated National Guardsmen fought on Bataan and suffered the Bataan Death March. Less than half of men returned home.

Neither Romney nor Ryan issued a Pearl Harbor Day statement. It should be noted that those mentioned as advising candidate Romney on Japan are the same people in the Bush II Administration who actively blocked compensation for the POWs of Japan as well as a joint Congressional commemorative statement for the 60th anniversary of the end of Pacific War.

In pulling together the data for the above, I decided to see, as an example, how the incumbent congressional candidate for my newly redrawn home district in upstate New York Chris Gibson (R-NY-20, redrawn as the 19th) voted.

I found that although one of the few decorated Iraq war veterans in Congress, he has supported Republican vice presidential candidate Rep Paul Ryan’s budget that cuts benefits and jobs programs for veterans. The same budget reduces funds for diplomatic security, putting veterans in harm’s way, as we have seen with the deaths of former Navy Seals in Libya. Even when dollars are not involved, he ignores the history of those soldiers who came before him, especially from America’s “greatest generation.”

He, as many, loyally followed the House Republican leadership’s refusal to consider commemorative bills. Thus, for the first time in history, on December 7, 2011, Congress did not pass a resolution recognizing Pearl Harbor and its seminal moment in American history. Gibson, a retired Army colonel, was not even a co-sponsor of the bi-partisan H.CON.RES.89 introduced to commemorate the 70th Anniversary of Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor.

However, ten days later, he allowed Speaker of the House John Boehner to ram through H. RES. 497 honoring British Prime Minister Winston Churchill for his December 26, 1941 Pearl Harbor speech to Congress urging Americans to pursue the war first in Europe. The resolution even requested taxpayer money to place this foreign leader’s bust in the Capitol Rotunda.

Americans then fighting the first battles of WWII in the Philippines, Guam, Wake Island, and Java are less sanguine about Churchill’s successful Washington lobbying for a Europe-first strategy. The abandoned soldiers, sailors and Marines in the Pacific were condemned by this policy to hopeless battles ending in death or over three years of imprisonment in Japan’s notorious POW camps.

Colonel Gibson has also failed to support resolution, H. RES. 333, honoring those men who survived the torture, abuse, and slave labor as POWs of Japan. Nor did he co-sponsor H.RES.636 to designate April 9, 2012 to May 6, 2012, as “Bataan-Corregidor Month” recognizing one of the most historic battles of American history. And he did not stand up for H.R.3712 awarding a gold medal to those who defended Bataan in the first months of WWII. Although an Army Ranger, he also did not appear at any event held on Capitol Hill this April for the 70th Anniversary Commemoration of the Defense of the Philippines with survivors of the infamous Bataan Death March and Battle of Corregidor.

He is among the 204 co-sponsors of H.R.719 to award a Congressional Gold Medal to the World War II members of the Civil Air Patrol. However, he was not among the 308 (out of 435) members who cosponsored H.R.2447 to grant the congressional gold medal to the first African Americans of the Marine Corps known during WWII as the Montford Point Marines. He did carefully vote "yea" on the bill in an unusual roll call vote—bills with so many cosponsors rarely face a roll call and are passed by unanimous consent.

An official, black and white MIA/POW flag stands beside the door of Congressman Gibson’s Washington office. However, on National POW/MIA Recognition Day, September 21, Gibson, like many of his colleagues, did not issue so much as a Tweet acknowledging the day’s significance. By ignoring yesterday’s veterans, Congressmen like Chris Gibson send a discouraging message to today’s veterans. Congress is missing in action for their interests.