Correction to This Article
This article referred to a Bataan Death March survivor's recollections of seeing "caribous." That spelling was common at the time to describe water buffaloes in the Philippines; the modern spelling is "carabaos."

The Long March of Time

By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 11, 2008

It ends today.

The last commander is tired. His old Army pals are worn out. They're sick, they're bent with age, they're disappearing from this Earth.

So Lester Tenney, the 88-year-old commander of a dwindling group of Bataan Death March and Japanese prison camp survivors, plans to commemorate Veterans Day at Arlington National Cemetery today for the last time, closing a 62-year tradition. The organization, American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor, voted in May to officially disband next June for lack of able-bodied members.

Tenney believes as few as 100 or so survivors of the World War II death march are still with us, and none has the energy or inclination to lead the group he has headed since May. The ceremony that Tenney flew here from San Diego to participate in becomes both a homage to war dead and a grace note in the passing of an organization that has never gotten the official apology from Japan that the group wanted for more than six decades, or compensation from Japanese companies that enslaved prisoners of war.

"I'm through," said Tenney, who has had triple bypass surgery and prostate cancer, and takes medication for an irregular heartbeat. "I want to get on with my life."

Which helps explain Mission No. 2 of Tenney's Washington visit.

Just as he came here to declare an end to the Bataan and Corregidor survivors' group -- and to make one last pitch to Japanese diplomats and U.S. politicians -- Tenney also came to reclaim his Jewish identity. Four months after his 88th birthday, Tenney, who has thick salt-and-pepper hair and a quick smile, draped a prayer shawl on his shoulders and became a bar mitzvah Saturday before a small, delighted crowd at Ohev Sholom synagogue in Northwest Washington.

The idea formed two months ago while he was visiting Washington for a memorial service and met Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of Ohev Sholom. The rabbi casually asked when he'd been bar mitzvahed.

The answer: never.

Tenney doesn't embarrass easily -- he once declared to his family that he'd found a cancerous lump only to discover that he'd fallen asleep with gum in his mouth and that the lump was gum stuck under his arm. But this bar mitzvah business embarrassed him. He was raised Jewish, but was never particularly observant. He says the rabbi declared on the spot that he would do the job. "How could I say no?" Tenney recalled. And that was that.

Tenney -- a retired finance professor at Arizona State and San Diego State universities -- memorized his Hebrew lines. But Jewish traditions are still taking a little getting used to.

"You think they do this every Saturday?" Tenney wondered aloud in the hall as candles were being lighted to mark the end of the Sabbath. "Once every 88 years for me."

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