Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Death March remembered

At the Cannes Film Festival this year, a film on the infamous 1942 Bataan Death March was featured among "un certain regard" selections. As you can see from the clip above, the Filipino director, Adolfo Borinaga Alix Jr., took a very stylistic, emotive approach to the war crime.

He was not concerned with historic details such as the style of the helmets or cleanliness of the uniforms. He wanted the viewer to feel the brutality, to sense the hopelessness, to become abandoned of all senses. The film is considered "experimental."

Unfortunately, Alix overplayed his objective and the film was not well-received. The Variety reviewer wrote that the film, Death March, was a
gruelingly abstract and attenuated war meditation. Deploying a curious mix of artificial scenery, extended slow-motion and black-and-white cinematography, the director seeks to suspend viewers in the surreal, barbaric experience of the Bataan Death March, which claimed the lives of thousands of POWs being forcibly transferred by the Japanese army in 1942. That it’s monotonous and excruciating by design isn’t enough to recommend this drawn-out tribute/art piece, whose walkout-heavy Cannes premiere doesn’t bode well for its prospects beyond festivals.

In contrast, filmaker Jan Thompson's Tragedy of Bataan, tries to maintain historical accuracy and stays close to traditional documentary filmmaking.
The Tragedy of Bataan features first-person accounts by over 20 survivors of the conflict, archival photos, and never-before-seen Japanese propaganda film footage. It also includes excerpts from the unpublished diary of Captain Albert Brown of Pinckneyville, Illinois, who describes the five months leading up to the surrender of U.S. troops and Filipino defenders to the Imperial Japanese Army. Brown, who is featured in the television program, was 101 years old at the time of the interview and passed away at age 105 in August 2011. He had been the oldest survivor of the Bataan Death March.
These are two different films, albeit with an important history to recall. Neither, however, transcends to art. They are not graphically arresting, unsettling records of the horror. Whereas the story they tell is memorable, the storytelling is not. They are not Night and Fog, The Sorrow and The Pity, Schindler's List or Sophie's Choice, the title of which has become an literary expression for an unbearable choice.

But these films about the March are important steps toward encouraging the production of a seminal film on the POW experience. And most important, they are proof that the history will not expire with the death of the last survivor. The story is moving into the realm of the artist. The arts embed history into culture and are thus the best way to ensure permanence. In the end, Japan's deniers have more to fear from art than they do from history.

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Japanese American POW "unmasked"

click to order
Martin Cherrett in his excellent daily blog, World War II Today, points out that June 1 was the 70th anniversary of the "discovery" by Japanese guards that Staff Sergeant Frank Fujita of the Texas National Guard, their prisoner, was Japanese.

Fujita was a member of the 2D Battalion, 131st Field Artillery, Texas National Guard during World War II. Known as the Lost Battalion, they were captured in March 1942 on Java. Its members were sent to build the infamous Thai-Burma Death Railway. SSgt Fujita was then sent to be a slave laborer for Kawanami Shipyards at Fukuoka #2B near Nagasaki. He was also sent for interrogation to the infamous Ofuna Naval Interrogation Center and then forced to do radio propaganda at Omori where he was liberated.

Because SSgt Fujita was not part of the famous Japanese American 100th Infantry Battalion and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team nor a member of Military Intelligence Service (MIS) during WWII, he was not honored by Congress on November 2, 2011 with a gold medal. There has been no  gold medal for the American POWs of Japan.

An excerpt from his memoir with military historian Stanley L. Falk, Foo, A Japanese-American Prisoner Of The Rising Sun: The Secret Prison Dairy of Frank “Foo” Fujita (1993), of his "unmaking" is below.
On June 1, 1942 almost one year and three months after we were captured in Java, a Japanese guard realized that my name was Japanese, here in Nagasaki, Japan. This guard, like so many people in Japan, could read something printed in English, but they could not understand when it was read back to them.

As room chief my name was at the top of the roster and when he saw it, his eyes liked to have popped out and he pointed to my name and said: ‘Fujital Fujita Nippon no namai!’ (Fujita is a Japanese name!’) And then he asked me where Fujita was, and I told him that he had gone to the benjo [toilet]. He said that he would wait and I moved towards the back of the room with my heart in my mouth and shaking like a leaf. I was as close to being scared to death as I will ever come. The guard remained at the front of the room and asked everyone that came into the room, where Fujita was.
Almost everyone in the room was as keyed up as I was, for they had sweated my being found out, too, and now that the time had come they all stood around with bated breath to see what would happen next. 
Another man came into the room and the guard asked him where Fujita was and he looked around and saw me, and before anyone could caution him, he pointed to me and said ‘There he is!’ 
The guard looked surprised and also a little put out with me for having told him that Fujita had gone to the benjo. Any other time I would have been beaten up on the spot, but this time he was much too excited over his discovery to think of bashing me about.
He called me back up to the front of the room and looked me up and down, sucking his teeth and muttering something incredulously about Fujita being a POW. He tried to carry on a conversation with me, about me, and finally decided that I really could not speak the language. He would feel of my skin and then put his arm next to mine and compare them, and like the guard at the wash rack, he said ‘Somma, Somma! He would turn to the other guys in the room and then point to me and then to himself and tell them that we were somma, somma.
Finally he could not stand it any longer, that he was the only Japanese to know this so he took off for the guard house. 
I really became frightened then and felt very strongly that my untimely demise could be forthcoming posthaste! Even though I felt like this, I still felt hope way down deep that I would survive the war in one piece. 
In a little while he brought another guard with him to look me over, only to have the lights go out, for it was bedtime and all room lights were turned out at 10:00 PM. 
Well, there was no sleep for me this night and Sgts. Heleman and Lucas were trying to comfort me and convince me that maybe they would not kill me after all. I was in such mental anguish that even the bedbugs, fleas, and mosquitos were not bothering me. 
During the night, each time the guard shift changed, the guards would take turns coming to my room and looking at me, even those who normally patrolled the other side of the camp 
Fujita became an object of curiosity for the Japanese but he survived several interrogations by pretending to be stupid. He upset them by refusing to join the Japanese Army and in the end they let him return to the ranks of the other U.S. POWs.

Battle of Midway, June 1942

Midway Atoll
June 4-7 is the 71st anniversary of the Battle of Midway. It is was a dramatic victory for the United States following a series of humiliating defeats in the early months of the Pacific War. The seminal naval battle showed Japan that the Americans were not push-overs.

Victory at Midway followed the Battle of the Coral Sea (May 7-8, 1942) where the U.S. Navy had established an operational advantage over Japan. The U.S. showed it could get forces quickly out to the Pacific and could weaken Imperial Japan's Pacific offense. As you can imagine, the former achievement would haunt the American POWs of Japan abandoned on The Philippines.

After the Battle of Midway, Tokyo understood that the war was to be long and difficult. The U.S. military had not been crippled by the bombing of Pearl Harbor or by the fall of the Philippines. The Americans proved tenacious and lucky.

Japan thought it could eliminate the U.S. Pacific Fleet and secure an important base mid-way in the Pacific. They believed that victory would lead to a negotiated peace with the U.S. and a quick end to the war. They were wrong.

If you are interested in learning more about the Battle of Midway and its significance, there is a new anthology published this month of memoirs, articles, excerpts from other books, and relevant government documents to help readers understand what happened and explain why the battle was so significant to the naval service. The Battle of Midway: The Naval Institute Guide to the U.S. Navy’s Greatest Victory (June 2013) focuses on events leading up to the battle and the battle itself, with a separate section examining how others have interpreted the battle's engagements.

The author is Thomas C. Hone, a former senior executive in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and a former member of the faculty of the Naval War College with a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin.

Two of the most respected and read books on the Battle of Midway are Gordon W. Prange's Miracle at Midway (1982) and Jonathan Parshall and Anthony Tully's Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway (2005) that uses recently translated Japanese sources.

Click on the books to order or learn more.