I cannot forget.
Many European nations, especially Switzerland and Sweden, have been implicated in the transfer or acceptance of gold looted by the Nazis from their Jewish victims. Apartments confiscated by the Nazis in Paris have never been returned to their rightful owners. Neutral Portugal traded with Germany, as extreme of Europe.
Early in 1997, it was revealed that the newly appointed U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright had spent much of her life attempting to deny her Jewish heritage in fear of the anti-Semitic prejudices that had destroyed many of her relatives. Hidden Jews in Poland phoned a special telephone hotline to confess that they were burdened with a similar secret.
The same struggle to relieve the sting of deeply felt injustices and the lingering pain of catastrophic suffering continues in Asia as well. Women in South Korea and the Philippines who were forced to serve as sex slaves (euphemistically called "comfort women") have demanded official apologies before they will accept the compensation that an embarrassed Japanese government has been forced to provide. Chinese officials still watch with anger the ways the brutal "Rape of Nanking" in 1937 is palliated in the school textbooks which are approved by the Japanese Ministry of Education.
These struggles have been played out in the public eye, but for thousands of other individuals likewise violated by the war, their personal suffering--just as intense--continues as a private matter not put before the public. Among those is Edward Weiss, whose story is told here. Weiss is an American but his life was changed by wartime events in Asia. His is not a story of anti-Semitic violence but of inflicted suffering equally uncalled for. Now living in the snowbelt of northern Pennsylvania, over fifty years ago he struggled for survival in the warmly moist jungles of Indonesia. Not wanting to carry his burdens and unanswered questions to the grave, Weiss, now in his seventies, felt compelled to seek an understanding of what had happened to him.
In 1941, Ed Weiss was twenty years old, a radio operator in the U.S. Army who had wanted to see the world and experience adventure. Christmas that year meant war for Weiss. He saw the Philippine city of Manila, where he was stationed, crumble under relentless attacks by Japanese airpower. Those early raids by Japanese planes also destroyed the American P40 fighters and B-17 bombers stationed there. The American units had no air cover and were therefore at the mercy of the Japanese, who dominated the skies. When radio reports said Japanese convoys of warships and transports likely loaded with combat forces were heading toward the Philippines, Weiss' unit evacuated Manila to escape into the mountain jungles of Negros Island.
After months of wandering in the Philippine hinterland, followed by weeks at sea attempting to sail to Australia, Weiss was captured by a Japanese marine patrol boat off the coast of the island of Morotai, about 300 miles north of New Guinea. That August day in 1942 marked the end of his attempt to escape to Australia and the beginning of his confinement as a prisoner of war.
Weiss was taken to a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp on the island of Ambon, then part of the Dutch East Indies (and since 1949 part of Indonesia). Within the camp compound were fifty barrackslike buildings set on concrete slabs, with low wooden sides and roAd with palm leaf thatch. There he found about 800 Australian soldiers and a number of Dutch men, some of them army but primarily businesspeople and government officials who had controlled the island. It was there he also met a Japanese official who has never faded from his memory. This was Masakiyo Ikeuchi, an enigmatic figure who Weiss initially learned to hate during his years in captivity.
Ikeuchi was then forty-nine years old and wore a special khaki uniform, though he was, in fact, a civilian without formal military rank. He had a reasonably good command of English, so when the war began he was assigned as an interpreter to the Japanese navy and accompanied the Japanese naval forces that took Ambon.
To some degree, the authority that Ikeuchi enjoyed went to his head, and he overstepped his role as interpreter to act, instead, as if he were directly in charge of enforcing discipline on the POWs. He sometimes launched into tirades against the prisoners and against the United States (although the majority of the POWs at Ambon were Australians). "You are convicts," he once shouted. "Soon Japan will occupy America and punish Americans for their evil deeds, but for now we have you. You are savages without culture."
In November 1943, command of Ambon was given to Japanese Naval Captain Wadami Shirozu. Shirozu, then forty-five years old, was an officer who favored an orderly and correct approach to military procedure. A student of classical Chinese poetry, he ran the island with military regimentation where punishment for infractions could be cruel and unforgiving. Shirozu did not care to posture or swagger in front of the POWs. His orders went down through the chain of command and he himself rarely visited the camp.
Reporting to Shirozu was Naval First Lieutenant Yoshio Miyazaki, who was named commandant of the camp garrison unit. Miyazaki was a twenty-three-year-old, baby-faced officer in 1943. He was a proud officer who would assemble the POWs in military formation and read out his announcements. Ikeuchi acted as interpreter, translating them into English for the prisoners.
Life at Ambon under Shirozu and Miyazaki became a numbing routine of exhausting work details, decreasing food rations, and no medicines. Any infraction of the rules could result in a beating. After being brutalized by the guards, prisoners were left to fend for themselves--to crawl slowly back to their barracks or to be carried to the inadequate camp hospital hut by fellow prisoners.
Sometimes Ikeuchi seemed to want to help the POWs in their battle for survival. As food became ever more scarce and rations dwindled dangerously low, he organized the Americans to begin a garden to grow their own vegetables, encouraging them to depend on their own efforts to stay alive. Still, since he could be given to fits of anger and yelling, the prisoners tried their best to keep him at a distance and to look busy so as not to give him any reason to beat them.
Under these conditions, Weiss endured 1943 and 1944. There was no real news of the war then raging both in Europe and the Pacific. Life was tedious and time passed slowly. He had just enough energy to make it through each day, with virtually no reserves of strength for humor or vigorous activity or hope.
The hardest year at Ambon was 1945. The prisoners received not even a handful of rice daily. Work details continued, but their toll on the men was higher than it had been earlier in their captivity. There was no soap to wash the ugly cuts and bruises from beatings, no bandages to cover them. Their wounds became infected and ordinary movement became painful. Prisoners died every day.
Early in August 1945, after suffering nearly thirty-seven months as a prisoner, Weiss reached a decision about his own future. He calculated that if the tiny rations of rice were to continue, supplemented first by the sweet potatoes he had and then by the leaves and vines of area plants, he might be able to stay alive until Christmas. But if there was no end to his personal hell by December, he would give up on life and die. It seemed to be a totally rational decision with no possible alternative.
Vague rumors had been spreading through the camp during the summer of 1945 that the Nazis had been defeated in Germany, that American forces held the momentum in the Pacific, that Japanese supply lines were broken and the Imperial forces were retreating on every front.
Then, as if in a dream, one day in late August, the POWs were assembled for their morning roll call when a young Japanese interpreter arrived to announce that the war was over and the prisoners would be going home. Work parties ceased and Japanese troops, though still guarding the camp, began to bring in large amounts of food supplies. Soap was provided and some men were given injections of vitamin B to counteract the beriberi. A team of Japanese engineers arrived to string electrical lines to the barracks so that each building had at least one light bulb; other teams brought radios.
Four Royal Australian Navy corvettes arrived in early September to evacuate the prisoners. Shocked by the weakened state of the POWs, the Australian officer asked who was responsible for such brutality toward them. For most of the POWs, their immediate anger was directed at Ikeuchi. He was placed under arrest, brought to a ship, and placed on deck in a wire cage used to hold fresh vegetables. The Australian sailors jeered, he was humiliated by being hosed down while in the cage. One POW managed to get past the Indian guards and attack Ikeuchi, knocking out all of his front teeth. His face bruised and swollen, Ikeuchi was a totally defeated man and joined the work parties of Japanese POWs who were made to dig ditches and reinforce roadbeds.
Since the majority of the prisoners at Ambon had been Australian, the Australian War Crimes Commission was assigned jurisdiction for holding trials of the officers and guards of the camp. Ikeuchi, Shirozu, and Miyazaki, along with several other Japanese officers, received death sentences. Another forty-four camp guards and NCOs received prison sentences ranging from one to twenty years.
After his release from Ambon, Weiss returned to the United States, where he was given a promotion and honorable discharge from the army and was told to begin the rest of his life. Coming out of a living hell, he found himself puzzled at how his fellow Americans went casually about their daily routines. He knew he had to take readjustment to freedom at his own pace and that it would be best if he could somehow distance himself from the war and from what he had experienced at the camp.
In the decades that followed, Weiss sought to come to terms with his memories and the lingering effects of his imprisonment--silently and alone. He viewed in dismay the amazing resurgence of the Japanese economy in the 1970s and 1980s and endured his children's jokes about wanting to drive a Japanese car. He avoided all goods made in Japan; he preferred not to think about that country.
Not until his wife of many years had died and his children had left the house did Weiss truly ponder the meaning of his lost youth. He attempted to reach a catharsis of his lingering emotional burden by writing up a full account of his experiences. In 1992, at the age of seventy-one, after weeks of lost sleep and low-level depression, he re-created his days at Ambon in a book entitled Under the Rising Sun.
Weiss also began to exchange letters with the Ambon Society (Ambon Kai)--his first contact with anyone or anything Japanese since the end of the war. Much to his shock, the society was formed by Japanese officers who had been stationed on the island during the war, to honor the memory of Wadami Shirozu and Yoshio Miyazaki!
The society was organized by Yoshiro Peter Ninomiya, who had arrive on Ambon late in 1994 as a sub-lieutenant in the Imperial Marines. He believed that, although it was true that Shirozu and Miyazaki had carried out brutal orders against the POWs--Miyazaki had even ordered the execution of some of the prisoners--they were, nevertheless, patriots and highly disciplined officers who were only following orders. Furthermore, during the war crimes trials, both men had acknowledged responsibility for their actions and asked that they be punished instead of the lower-ranking men whom they had commanded. In the society's view, Shirozu and Miyazaki had undergone the humiliation and fright of their confinement by the Australians for two years until their executions, while maintaining their dignity and taking responsibility for what had transpired during the war.
From his cell on September 24, 1947,
Shirozu had written a long letter to comfort his mother, wife, and children in Japan, saying in part:
I was told at 3 PM this afternoon that I will be executed by
firing squad at 6 Am tomorrow morning .... If you choose
to hate Australia or Australians for executing your father,
you will not be fit to take part in the great task of planning
and building the new Japan. The past should be a basis
for reflection. Look beyond it for Japan's future. Strive to
build an ideal nation, free from the evils of the past.
From his correspondence with Ninomiya, Weiss came to acknowledge the sense of duty to the power structure that compelled Shirozu, Miyazaki, and Ikeuchi to act as they did. Furthermore, upon learning about Ikeuchi's widow and daughter, he began to see past the soldier to the human being. Together with Walter Hicks, an Australian POW at Ambon, Weiss decided to write to Ikeuchi's widow to express his sorrow at what had happened over fifty years ago. Hicks long held that Ikeuchi had been the unfortunate victim of circumstances beyond his control, a hapless civilian interpreter badgered by the Japanese officers and forced into daily confrontations with the POWs. Weiss was slower to reconcile the bitter memories he still carried but eventually came to believe that Ikeuchi had not received a fair trial and had not deserved to be executed.
It was difficult, however, to totally forgive the Japanese who had so cruelly and brutally ruled the camp. To resolve his feelings, Weiss decided to revisit Ambon, to confront whatever he might find there--be it at the site or within himself. In September 1995, exactly fifty years after his release, he once again trod the ground of the old camp.
The site was not what he expected. The once quiet setting of lush jungle, reaching practically to the water's edge, had given way to a jumble of buildings lining the shore. Houses, shops, and the bustle of local commerce was spread all along the bay front. Amidst the constant noise of traffic, emitting its heavy fumes of diesel exhaust, was the excited cacophony of shoppers and children playing, the colorful signs of storefronts, and the streetside hawkers. Only a, small parklike area of well-trimmed lawn and a modest marker proclaimed the site that haunted his memories.
It was almost a relief, a quiet joke, to see how things had changed and to realize that all of these people had managed to obliterate, by their innocent unconcern, the pain and degradation that had taken place there. The burden of so many years lifted--old images that need no longer be preserved.
Yet in the months that followed, Weiss realized that complete closure was not possible. There were still questions for which he had no answers. Forcing the POWs to constant labor was one of the consequences of being a prisoner of the enemy during wartime, and the strict discipline imposed was a logical element of the military mindset. But why had medical supplies been denied? When simple items like soap or rest might have allowed the POWs to regain some strength to do heavy work, why had the Japanese authorities denied even these few considerations? Even if rations were short for all, why were the captives kept on the point of starvation, with portions so meager that many succumbed? And why were the prisoners--totally defenseless and barely clinging to life--still repeatedly humiliated and abused? Was such cruelty demanded by the Japanese spirit of patriotism? Was there no place in the thinking of the camp officials for a glimmer of basic human decency?
Ninomiya doesn't think it proper for the Japanese government to apologize for the actions carried out in its name during the war. "We did this for the sake of our country," he said, "and to apologize would bring dishonor to our ancestors, many of whom died to do what they felt was necessary at the time." Hicks abhors the vindictiveness of his fellow Australians just after the war ended. He said it made a mockery of the war crimes trials which convicted the Japanese for their acts of cruelty at Ambon. Neither man wants recriminations or a bitter argument. It won't bring back their friends who died, they said; it won't change history.
Weiss agrees with that, but still he struggles with some of what took place. Yes, the past is past. But some of the past will always remain with Ed Weiss--as it does for all who live through war.
Ronald Suleski received his Ph.D. from the University of Michigan in 1974. He lived in Tokyo for eighteen years, as traveled widely in Asia, an speaks both Chinese Japanese. He is currently research associate at the Fairbank Center for East Asian Research at Harvard University. (The Japanese names in this article are presented in Western order, with given name followed by surname.)
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|Title Annotation:||Two American Prisoners of War; A young American soldier held captive by Japanese for three years|
|Date:||Jan 1, 1998|
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