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Florissant man, a former POW in World War II, returns to Japan to accept a nation's apology

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 27, 2010 - There is an understated graciousness in the way Earl Szwabo, 89, describes the officials and students he met during a recent trip to Japan with American veterans who survived the atrocities of the Japanese Imperial Army as prisoners of war during World War II.

"They realize -- and they wanted us to realize -- that they know what they did. And they apologized for all of it,'' said Szwabo, who was imprisoned for more than three years after the surrender of Corregidor Island on May 6, 1942, during the Japanese invasion of the Philippines.

"I didn't think they'd ever apologize,'' he added.

Back home in Florissant -- where he flies the U.S. flag proudly on a tall pole in his front yard -- Szwabo was still decompressing from the trip, sifting through impressions of a pleasant experience in Japan while unable to forget the horrendous memories of a war that ended 65 years ago.

Among the gifts and memorabilia Szwabo and his wife, Liz, brought back: a brochure from the chemical corporation that owns the factory in Nagoya, Japan, where Szwabo and other American POWs labored as slaves, melting copper church bells. The prisoners worked 12 to 14 hours a day on starvation diets of rice and fish-head soup, and slept on mats in the factory, fearful that they would be hit in American bombing raids because they had no way to alert the pilots of their presence.

Szwabo weighed 130 pounds when taken prisoner and just 70 pounds when freed. He said he suffered his share of beatings -- everyone was beaten -- but he considers himself among the lucky.

He was not on the infamously brutal Bataan Death March. Thousands of American and Filipino soldiers died from starvation and thirst or were executed by Japanese soldiers on the 60-mile forced march.

And, as hard as prison life was in Japan, he survived -- unlike 150 of his fellow soldiers who were left in a prison camp on Palawan Island. After enduring months of abuse, they were massacred by machine guns or burned alive in trenches by their Japanese captors. The bodies of those soldiers were reburied after the war in a mass grave at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery.

No, Szwabo says, he didn't suffer as much as so many others.

After years of pressure by U.S. veterans groups, including the American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor, Japan has only recently offered apologies for the abuse of American prisoners of war by its military during the second world war. The veterans' week-long tour of Japan in mid-September was sponsored and paid for by the Japanese government as a further symbol of reconciliation.

"You have all been through hardships during World War II, being taken prisoner by the Japanese military, and suffered extremely inhumane treatment," Japanese Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada told the group when he met with them in Tokyo, according to the Japan Times. "On behalf of the Japanese government and as the foreign minister, I would like to offer you my heartfelt apology."

It was the first such trip for former American POWs, although Japan has hosted former prisoners from other Allied countries, such as Great Britain and the Netherlands, the Times reported.

The American veterans met with countless government officials, including representatives of the Japanese legislature, plus the Japanese media and college students.

"I think the apology is enough, and I'm glad it's all over with,'' Szwabo said. "I don't want to think about it, but it's pretty hard not to. I don't think there is one POW who will ever forget the things we went through.''

Szwabo and his wife also met with officials of the Ishihara Sangyo Kaisha chemical company at the Yokkaichi factory where he was enslaved. The company now has subsidiaries in the United States.

"The people were nice,'' he said. "Some of our prisoners died in that factory; they had a shrine for them."

Szwabo said he was impressed by the generous spirit shown to the veterans by the Japanese people.

"They treated us really fine," Szwabo said. "And we didn't have to pay for a thing."

That price was paid in full 65 years ago.

'You hoped you'd live'

Szwabo said he was just 17 when he joined the Army, enlisting in St. Louis where he lived with his mother and younger brother.

"There were no jobs; I was working at Western Union, delivering telegrams on a bicycle,'' Szwabo said.

The Army promised three square meals a day and a future, but Szwabo failed the physical.

"I was 2 pounds too light to get in the Army,'' he said.

An Army doctor took him aside and offered him some advice on quick weight gain: He ate four big bananas and was accepted.

"My mother didn't want me to go, but I wanted to go, and since I was 17 she had to sign the papers,'' he said. "That was a hard thing for my mother to do."

After a brief stay at Jefferson Barracks, Szwabo was sent to San Francisco to board a boat for the Philippines, where he underwent basic training. He was assigned to Battery C of the 59th Coast Artillery on Corregidor Island, where he would witness the arrival of the Japanese who began attacking the Philippines on Dec. 8, 1941, the day after Pearl Harbor.

From the get-go, the American soldiers knew they were on their own, Szwabo said. After the 31st American Infantry and Filipino soldiers on the Bataan peninsula surrendered, the Americans on Corregidor held out for another month. In the meantime, escaping soldiers told them of the atrocities occurring at the hands of the Japanese.

"We knew it was going to be pretty rough," Szwabo said. "But we couldn't fight tanks with rifles. Gen. (Jonathan) Wainright told us there was no help coming. The United States was sending all the troops to save England and France. What could you do? No help was coming. No boats, no airplanes to get you off. We had limited rations. We were running out of food. The general thought it best to surrender. At least you'd live. You hoped you'd live."

After their surrender, the troops were paraded through the streets of Manila, humiliated by their captors who were sending a message to the Filipinos that the Americans were powerless, he said.

Szwabo was eventually among 300 prisoners transported to the island of Palawan to build an airstrip for the Japanese. Half the group, including Szwabo, were later shipped to the mainland of Japan to work in factories. Those who stayed on the island would perish in the massacre.

"They loaded our ship with Filipino brown sugar in the front hull; in the back hull, copper church bells the Japanese had taken. When we got to Nagoya they marched us to this factory to live and where we melted these big bells. Poured the hot copper into molds and made big slabs that were shipped to other factories," he said. "We worked 12 to 14 hours a day. They got free labor; these companies made fantastic money by using slave labor."

Szwabo said he worked at the plant until Aug. 9, 1945, when the U.S. dropped the second atomic bomb on Nagasaki.

"At the plant, everything stopped," he said. "All the guards took off and finally some of the American airplanes dropped food on our camp. We went to the railroad station and caught a train to Tokyo where we met the American troops."

Szwabo had lost half his body weight. He said the prisoners of war wore rags and were thin as skeletons, their skin as wrinkled as old men. He had received no Red Cross packages during his imprisonment and had no communication with his mother, who had originally been told that he had been killed.

Looking back, Szwabo believes he survived the prison camps partly because he was young.

"The men who were 30 and 35, they were in bad shape. They thought of their wives and their kids," he said, looking away, his voice breaking.

'A POW never forgets'

Because of his poor health after the prison camps, Szwabo said he didn't want to burden his mother. He re-enlisted in the Army and served for 20 years.

"The Army was good to me," he said. "I came back as a private first class and I got quickly promoted to chief warrant officer."

Szwabo's younger brother later joined the Army, as well, and was killed in Korea.

Szwabo said he has been waiting 65 years for the Japanese to say they are sorry. He credits Lester Tenney of Carlsbad, Calif., who is a survivor of the Bataan Death March, for pushing for the trip to Japan. Tenney, 90, is a professor emeritus at Arizona State University and has called for public apologies from Japanese companies, such as Mitsui, Mitsubishi and Kawasaki, who not only used the prisoners as slave labor but allowed their mistreatment.

"We have sought from these companies just a letter, just a word saying we are sorry for what we allowed to happen,'' Tenney told the Japanese foreign minister. "And yet these private companies have kept quiet for 65 years and it is insulting because what is happening is that by their keeping quiet, they hope we will die off and all will be back to normal.''

In May 2009, Ichiro Fujisaki, Japan's ambassador to the United States, appeared at a convention of the American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor to apologize for the suffering caused by his nation. It was the group's last official convention before disbanding because of the advanced ages of its members. An auxiliary made up of descendants of former POWs now carries on the group's mission.

"Some of the men just thought that the apology was way too late,'' said Jan Thompson, who serves as president of the descendants group. "Others thought it was great. And you had another group who thought, 'This is just an ambassador.' So I think this trip to Japan really meant a lot to the men.''

Thompson, an assistant professor in the radio-television department at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, accompanied the veterans to Japan. She said that the Japanese government indicated that it would sponsor additional "friendship" trips for American POWs.

Thompson said there has been speculation that the reason the Japanese waited so long to apologize to the American POWs might have to do with the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki -- or because there was concern that the POWs might sue the companies that had enslaved them.

"It's not been officially clear,'' she said. "But amazingly the government did reach out, and it was an awesome trip.''

The California legislature recently passed a bill that would require foreign companies bidding on a state high-speed rail contract to disclose whether they had transported Holocaust victims or POWs to Nazi camps during World War II. While the legislation was spurred by expected bids from a French rail company that transported Jews during the Holocaust, the Simon Wiesenthal Center recently issued a statement supporting the bill and urging similar disclosures from Japanese companies.

Szwabo said it was clear to him that the Japanese government had hidden the extent of the atrocities from its people.

"They didn't tell their people what they did,'' he said. "At all these meetings I went to in Japan, the younger generation didn't know what they had done. They didn't know that their Army did these atrocities. We wanted them to know what their country had done to us.''

Szwabo said that after 65 years, it is time to move on.

"We figure bygones are bygones,'' he said. "What we need now is to understand them and for them to understand us."

But accepting an apology doesn't mean that the horrors should be forgotten, Szwabo said.

"A POW will never forget. I dream still of different things, and think about it," he said. "I lost my outfit on Palawan when they burned 150 alive there. I was lucky that I got shipped out. I guess God was on my side. And I know why I was picked; I was in better shape than the older guys, and the Japanese took the ones who looked the best physically, so they could work us to death. The bad part is you can't forget it."

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.

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