Ex-POWs want pay, apology from Japanese

Maryland men part of class-action suit against corporations

November 26, 1999|By Marego Athans | Marego Athans,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

Herb Zincke thought he was looking at a skeleton that day in 1942 in Bilibid prison -- until the skeleton called him by name.

It was his Army Air Corps friend Paul Reuter. The Philippines had fallen to the Japanese, and the men had become prisoners of war. Reuter had already suffered the brutality of the Bataan Death March, and he and Zincke would go on to endure three years of starvation and cruelty in Japanese labor camps.

Fifty-seven years later, they lead comfortable lives in neighboring Maryland suburbs. But the men won't find peace, they say, until the Japanese corporate giants that forced them into slave labor apologize and pay for the prisoners' work and suffering.

Zincke and Reuter are among the former American prisoners of war who recently filed a class-action suit that accuses Kawasaki Heavy Industries, Mitsui & Co., Mitsubishi International Corp., Nippon Steel Corp. and Showa Denko of violating international treaties and profiting from prisoners working in their factories, mines and shipyards.

The lawsuit, filed in September in New Mexico on behalf of about 500 former prisoners, is part of an intensifying effort to make the Allies' World War II enemies pay war reparations. German and American negotiators are working on a global settlement of about 30 class-action lawsuits against German companies. (The latest German offer to Nazi-era slave laborers, $3.3 billion, was rejected by lawyers for the victims.)

Policy protected Japan

Many lawsuits over the years have charged the Japanese government with prisoner abuse. But a 1951 agreement, known as the San Francisco treaty, shielded Japanese interests, part of a U.S. policy to reinvent Japan as a friend, said Linda Goetz Holmes, a Pacific war historian who has done research for the lawsuit.

"We wanted them [the Japanese] as a bulwark against Russia and an ally against communism," Holmes said, adding that American guilt about the use of nuclear weapons against Japan also played a role in the policy.

It was a policy that the former prisoners say betrayed them by denying them recourse. "Our own government let us down," said Reuter, who earned a Bronze Star (as did Zincke) and Purple Heart during the war. "They cut us out of that treaty."

The class-action suit, which takes advantage of recently declassified documents, targets only the companies. Mitsui and Mitsubishi issued statements expressing sympathy for the war victims but denying responsibility for war crimes. Mitsui says it is being confused with the scores of other Japanese companies with Mitsui in their names. Mitsui and a subsidiary, also named in the suit, "were formed after World War II, and neither has ever had any involvement in either coal mining or stevedoring activities, as alleged by the plaintiffs," the statement said.

Mitsubishi says that the suit has no merit because neither the company nor its predecessor has engaged in manufacturing -- they are trading companies -- but adds it will take the allegations seriously. Kawasaki, also expressing sympathy for prisoners of war, said the company was still studying the complaint. And a lawyer for Nippon Steel Corp. says "the action is barred by international treaties, among other issues."

Zincke and Reuter suffered malnutrition, beriberi and other ailments that cut short their work lives and thwarted their dreams. Both men say the former prisoners deserve money for their suffering, though the suit does not specify an amount. But more important, these men say, is their demand for an apology from Japan. They want history to record the injustice of their slavery in the Japanese war industry.

Bataan Death March

Reuter, 79, tells his story from the living room of his modest, sunny house in Oxon Hill, which has wine-colored Oriental rugs and a needlepoint family tree above the living room couch with the names of his five children and 10 of his 12 grandchildren.

Reuter, who grew up in Eastern Pennsylvania's coal country during the Depression and enlisted in the Army Air Corps (the precursor to the Air Force) after high school, was working as a radio operator and mechanic on B-17 bombers in the Philippines when the Bataan Peninsula fell to the Japanese in April 1942.

He was forced into what became known as the Bataan Death March, trekking for seven days in 105-degree heat with no food and almost no water and seeing some of his comrades shot dead by Japanese soldiers. Several thousand U.S. and Filipino prisoners were estimated to have died on the march.

After the march, Reuter spent four days on burial detail at a prison camp, where he helped bury more than 200 bodies, saying a prayer over each one.

After working in the jungle, where disease was rampant, Reuter was brought to the hospital at Bilibid prison with a badly enlarged heart. He weighed 112 pounds, down from 205. And nearly 20 pounds of his weight was fluid retained because of beriberi, a thiamine deficiency that causes severe swelling and killed many of his comrades.

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