James L. Collier
Essay by James Collier on his visit to Japan
Going Back: An Invitation to be Guests of the Emperor (Really)
James C. Collier
When Les Tenney, P.N. Commander of the American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor, informed that seven former American POWs in WWII had been invited to spend a week in Honshu, as part of a peace and friendship program, I was stunned; did they not know that we former slave laborers might hate all things Japanese? Wouldn’t bad memories keep us from having a good time?
When I agreed to join the other six survivors and their wives and/or companions, I wasn’t certain of what the tour was all about. Peace and friendship are BIG topics. Why exactly, did they invite people between 88 and 92 years old? After all, many of our descendants know a great deal about the fall of Bataan and Corregidor, during the first months of 1942, having had access to a plethora of information on that subject for many years. Perhaps, because we are only the original sources still around but also, maybe because we somehow could bridge that gap of fear and loathing that many former enemies have harbored for so many years—almost seven decades. But the longer you live, the greater the burden becomes, is it not, then only prudent to shed that burden ASAP?
The children and grandchildren cannot be held responsible for the trangressions of their fathers. We survivors cannot forget, but we can forgive; if not as a group, certainly as individuals. But having said that, I can fully identify with those who cannot forgive. For many survivors of that infamous march, the brutality, the Hellships, the slave labor, the starvation and disease, it is simply too painful to let go.
On the second day of our tour, we visited Takaoka, home to a branch of Japan Metal and Chemicals, which replaced the old Noumachi Kojoe (also known as Hokkai Denka) where H. Bergbower and I worked as P.O.W. slave laborers in 1944 and 1945.
The old smelter was “open hearth.” The work at this plant was very hard and very hot. Visiting the new JMC plant in Takaoka, we received a very gracious welcome. Mr. Hamura, the Managing Director and his staff, gave all the time we needed to study the old maps of Noumachi, the location of the prison camp, and once familiar surroundings. Since so much has changed in the 66 years, we were all challenged to locate important structures, but we did find one weather beaten old building which had housed two or three furnaces still standing. I think this probe into local history was enjoyed just as much by our hosts as we visitors. The local media covered the visit and we found ourselves on TV during the dinner hour, an added bonus to a very interesting afternoon.
Before leaving for Kyoto, we briefly toured Takaoka and the countryside nearby. Our guide, the most reliable and energetic Fuji, informed us that this is the only place in the world where 12,000 foot mountain peaks can be seen from the seaside. Since the view is free, it is regrettable that we were never allowed to see it for ourselves as prisoners. I recall for the most part viewing a cloudy sky over a barbed wire fence surrounding our POW camp. I would not regret leaving such memories behind; all except one.
In the spring of 1945, perhaps March, I was still on Daigo Han (number five crew) responsible for mixing coke, ore and limestone-gindio-which became fodder for the old open hearth furnaces.
Everyone at Noumachi Koje worked very hard, especially on the furnace crews. But the men of Daigo Han worked in sheds open to the elements on three sides. They would sweat until almost wet and alternately cool down rapidly from the chilly winds that blew in from the Asian mainland. On that particular day, I felt bad, having recently recovered from the flu and was left feeling listless. That was enough to attract the attention of a military guard who, spying the camp commander on an inspection tour, turned me into the captain, for being a malingerer, I suppose. I never knew why; he didn’t need a reason. The prisoners gave one Japanese Captain who had been wounded in China, and had use of only one arm, the nickname of “One Armed Bandit”. He was however, adept at swordplay, which he often practiced. He ordered me to stand at rigid attention in front of him and of course I obeyed. We POWs never thought of having options, even in the face of danger. I remember at that moment, noticing how chilly it was and I began to shake a little; out of fear? Or, from the chill? Things were moving so fast that nothing had time to register; else I would have fouled myself or gone to my knees for mercy. But seeing him reach for the saber, I saw in my mind’s eye, my head separate from my body and fly off into space. Instead, I heard a crack and a thud and felt blunt force assaulting my left cheekbone; a small gush of blood. Another crack, another thud followed, and another gust of blood on the other cheek. He had left the scabbard on the blade! My head still belonged to me! I WAS ALIVE, but I had two black eyes and was shaken for days.
Kyoto, our next visit, is a dream of a city, 1200 years old, with ancient wooden temples, castle like-buildings appearing to be from the Meiji era and many fine parks. We did not get the opportunity but any visitor there should make time just to wander around and enjoy the beauty and serenity of the place. It would take a western visitor much time to figure it all out.
The most fun we had in Kyoto, I think was mingling with and trying to carry on conversations with some of the hundreds of school children apparently on nature field trips. Many wore uniforms. Their enthusiasm and friendliness afforded a nice contrast to our advanced age and slow pace. We happily answered their many questions in English.
The next morning we visited the main temple the giant Buddha, “Ryozon Kannon,” providing many photo opps with traveling staff. David Morten, an expatriate teacher, writer and tour guide, had a grandfather who was captured early in WWII in Singapore. The grandfather spent his internment working on the railway between Burma and Thailand, the same railway that inspired the film “Bridge on the River Kwai” in 1957. He also kept a journal published in book form a few years ago, and well worth reading, entitled, Surviving the War.
Despite the many interesting things to see in Kyoto, by far the most moving was reading some of the names of 48,000 Allied POWs enshrined at the temple. I gave the secretary the names of a distant cousin and a close friend from Corregidor who had died on a Hellship. I was totally unprepared for the tears that welled up and sent me scurrying into the sunshine and fresh air. My dear friend Kinue Tokudome was there to “pick me up.” She seems to have an uncanny understanding of the POW experience and, when that kind of “danger” is present, so is Kinue.
Too soon, we had to leave Kyoto and check out our beautiful A.N.A. hotel with the pretty ladies in Kimonos standing by the great bowers of orchids and tropical blossoms. I found the A.N.A. to be very restful, having excellent food and service. I would love to revisit Kyoto.