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."
Being bar mitzvahed circled the old sergeant back to the heritage he concealed from his Japanese captors more than six decades ago after seeing other Jews beaten by guards who sympathized with the Nazis. It is a faith he never really reembraced until now.
Tenney was 21 in April 1942 when approximately 12,000 U.S. soldiers and 63,000 Filipino soldiers surrendered on the Philippines' Bataan Peninsula. The next month, Allied forces also surrendered the Filipino island of Corregidor.
Guards forcibly marched the prisoners through tropical heat with little or no food and water in one of the most brutal episodes in the annals of the war. Tenney said his march lasted 12 days and covered 68 miles, while other survivors have testified at war crimes trials about marches of four days to two weeks, depending on where they were captured. Survivors have recounted witnessing disembowelments and rapes, guards cutting the throats of rows of marchers, and prisoners being beaten with rifle butts simply because they fell from exhaustion. Thousands died along the way, victims of beheadings and bayonet thrusts, as well as rampant malaria and dysentery.
Tenney, who barely escaped death when a guard on horseback slashed his back with a sword, said he survived by focusing on what he remembers as "crazy goals." Make it to that herd of caribous way off in the distance. Then to the mango grove. Then to the bend in the road.
"Nothing would stop me," Tenney recalled. "Stopping meant dying."
Surviving the death march meant that Tenney was alive to suffer for more than 30 days on one of the fetid "hell ships" that transported prisoners to camps in Japan, where he said he was enslaved for nearly three years in a coal mine owned by the Japanese company Mitsui. (Japanese companies have argued that they were exempted from survivor lawsuits by peace accords that ended the war.)
When Tenney was liberated at the end of the war, he was 98 pounds, half his normal weight. His wife, thinking he'd died, had married another man, and her union with Tenney was annulled. He eventually married again, but by 1959 he had divorced and moved on to California, where he was lonely and looking for a new life.
As in Bataan, he set a goal: He would meet 90 people whom he could invite to lunch or dinner in 90 days. He made it all the way to 90, but well before he did, he fell for a divorcee named Betty Levi -- No. 12 or 13, best he can recall. She became his wife, and is still married to him today at the age of 89.
In 1968, Ed Levi, one of Tenney's stepsons, set in motion a process of healing. He asked if the family could host an exchange student for the weekend. There was one thing, though, that Ed was nervous to reveal: The young man, a 20-year-old college student named Toru Tasaka, was Japanese.
"He wasn't sure how I'd take it," said Tenney, who now seems as comfortable talking about his war experiences as he does about doing magic tricks and playing drums in his senior-center band.
Decades ago, Tenney recalled, he was "angry and bitter," and almost never talked about being a prisoner of war. Tasaka was equally ill at ease, so rattled on learning that Tenney had been a prisoner of war that he declared, "I won't be able to tell mama-san." But he stayed for the summer, inspiring his host father to reconcile old wounds.
After returning to Japan, Tasaka invited the Tenneys to attend his wedding there in the early 1980s. It was Tenney's first trip to the island since the war. He and his wife had such fun that they joined the newlyweds for their honeymoon -- a tour of the country.
It was on that trip that a point of view began to take shape, a way of thinking that would finally bring Tenney a measure of enduring peace. He decided that even though many of his captors "were barbaric," others were unsophisticated young men from the Japanese countryside who misinterpreted their orders and committed atrocities because they feared retribution from higher-ups.
"A lot of killing was done by people who didn't want to kill," Tenney decided. "That became my new story. This is what I did to make me feel better. I don't know if it's true or not."
The new story also became the centerpiece of talks he has delivered countless times over the years in Japan and the United States -- at POW reunions, at senior citizen centers, in politicians' offices and, last weekend, at the synagogue in Washington.
"I don't have hatred in my heart; the more I associated with the Japanese, the less hatred I had," Tenney said in an interview.
Even though he didn't hate the Japanese, he adamantly wanted a formal apology from the Japanese government, and wanted Japanese companies and the U.S. government to compensate POWs for the years they lost to slave labor. Over the years, Tenney and his group have filed lawsuits, gotten bills introduced in Congress for the U.S. government to pay POWs $20,000 each as a gesture in recognition of their service, and buttonholed lawmakers from Tokyo to Tucson.
Taking one last shot, Tenney renewed his lobbying efforts this week, holding a round of meetings on Capitol Hill to seek help in pressuring Japan for a formal apology, and accepting an invitation to meet with the Japanese ambassador on Veterans Day.
Over the years, fleeting brushes with power got Tenney's hopes up. Years ago, Tenney talked for an hour with Sen. Joseph R. Biden (D-Del.), now vice president-elect, he said. Then-President Bill Clinton sent Tenney a handwritten congratulatory note after the 1995 publication of his memoir, "My Hitch in Hell: The Bataan Death March," which has been translated into Japanese. Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) once kissed him on the cheek, Tenney said. He calls Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.) -- whom he's gotten to know well while lobbying for the survivors' group -- his "bear brother" because they give each other bearhugs, he said.
But attention, alas, is just attention.
The lawsuits keep failing. The bills keep getting killed. The apology has never come.
And Tenney -- who says he's been "shrinking" and is down to 5 feet 7 inches or so -- has fewer and fewer friends from that awful island road and the slave camps to lean on. One pal just had a stroke. "The Mouse" -- his war buddy John Massimino -- died several years back.
He rattled off names.
Sgt. Martin. Sgt. Feiner. His old Navy buddy, Frank Bigelow.
All of them are gone.