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Former American POWs visit Japan, recount memories

Associated Press | Oct 12, 2015 | by Mari Yamaguchi

A former prisoner pays respect to fallen soldiers at the Commonwealth War Graves in Yokohama, near Tokyo

A former prisoner of war pays respect to fallen soldiers at the Commonwealth War Graves in Yokohama, near Tokyo

Nine former American servicemen who were held as prisoners during World War II were in Japan on Monday to revisit some of the places where they were held seven decades ago and recount their memories.

The men, all in their 90s, opened their tour with a memorial service for their fellow fallen soldiers at the Commonwealth War Graves in Yokohama, near Tokyo.

As they marked the 70th anniversary of the end of the war, the emphasis was on reconciliation.

George Rogers, of Lynchburg, Virginia, said he had no hard feelings. Now 96, he was taken captive by the Japanese after surviving the infamous Bataan Death March in April 1942 and forced to work at the Yawata steel plant in southern Japan, or today's Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corp.

During his nearly 3 1/2 years of captivity, Rogers was given meager food rations and sometimes beaten up.

He said that he was lucky to survive, but that he harbored "no hard feelings" toward his captors.

"Just like we do what we're told to do as far as the Army is concerned, your (Japanese) men do the same thing. They tell them to do it, they do it," he said. "Other than that, I think we lived."

A month after Japan's Aug. 15, 1945, surrender, Rogers returned to the U.S. in skin-and-bone state, weighing only 85 pounds (38 kilograms) despite being 6-foot-3. His doctor told him — he was 26 then — that he would most likely not live past 45 or 50, keep his teeth or have children.

Rogers still has his teeth, and has five children. One of them, Jeffrey, accompanied him on his trip to Japan.

"They didn't give me any food, and I didn't get much water when I needed it, but other than that, it was a long trip, very far," he said.

His hope to revisit the steel plant wasn't accommodated. The Yawata plant was chosen as a World Heritage site.

During the Bataan march, thousands of prisoners were forced to walk more than 60 miles (97 kilometers) under severe, sweltering conditions while being abused by their captors. Many died.

Some 132,000 allied force members were held as prisoners across Asia during World War II, including more than 30,000 in Japan, historians say. They say that of the total, about 35,800, or nearly one-third, died in captivity — dying at a rate several times higher than prisoners held by Germany and Italy.

At Monday's memorial service, the nine veterans, assisted by their family members and attendees from the U.S. Navy, laid flowers for their fellow countrymen who perished while in captivity.

The participants, visiting Japan at the invitation of the Foreign Ministry under a program for reconciliation that started five years ago, are scheduled to visit some of former camp sites, including Osaka, Yokohama and Kamioka, central Japan.

Japan has similar programs with Australia and Britain. Many former POWs still harbor hard feelings because of harsh treatment by the Japanese.

It took 94-year old Arthur Gruenberg, from Camano Island, Washington, 70 years to come back. The former Marine surrendered at Corregidor, Philippines, in May 1942, and was eventually shipped to a Fukuoka mine in southern Japan. By then he was blind in one eye due to vitamin A deficiency.

Gruenberg said he was simply impressed by Japan's postwar development and hoped it remains a peace-loving nation.

"Everything is just amazing, it's unbelievable," he said. "I can't say it (my feelings) has changed much, I just hope we don't have any more wars."

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