HEIWAJIMA, JAPAN — Bill Sanchez looked out over the canal. “That’s where the geisha girls used to be,” he said, pointing at the opposite bank, now lined with modern apartment buildings. “They used to wave at us.”
Was that a twinkle in his eye or just the reflection of the water?
For most American servicemen held as prisoners during World War II, returning to Japan is a complicated thing. But 96-year-old Sanchez, who spent 42 months doing back-breaking work here, said Thursday that the war was bad for everyone. He’s heartened at the way America’s former enemy has emerged from the ashes.
“I went through all that suffering, and the Japanese went through all those bombings,” he said, standing on the waterway that runs alongside what was once Camp Omori, where he was held prisoner.
Now, the camp site is a venue for boat races along the canal, complete with Jumbotron and betting windows. The neighboring mall features huge signs declaring “Big fun”and “Game panic.”
“I take a bit of pride in all of this. What they have done is unbelievable,” said Sanchez, who was brought to Japan on a “hell ship” in 1942 after U.S. forces surrendered in the Philippines, where he was stationed.
He was wearing a crimson garrison cap with “American ex-prisoners of war” on it.
Sanchez, a retired trader in steel and other commodities from Monterey Park, Calif., is one of seven former POWs visiting Japan on a trip organized by Japan’s foreign ministry “to promote mutual understanding between Japan and the United States through encouraging a reconciliation of minds.”
About 36,000 Allied prisoners of war were held in Japan during the war and were compelled to work, under extremely harsh conditions, in coal mines, shipyards and munitions factories. The mortality rate was as high as 27 percent, according to the POW Research Network Japan, and many of those who survived went home emaciated.
The seven men, all in their 90s, who came to Japan this week were being treated like VIPs, with receptions and a trip on the bullet train. But the real reason they are here is to go back to those places where they toiled 70 years ago.
On Thursday, three of the former POWs were driven in a small bus through the streets of Tokyo, past modern high-rises and under bridges where driverless trains take passengers to huge waterfront shopping malls.
The first stop for Sanchez was the railway yards in Tokyo, where, after Omori, he worked as a stevedore, hauling coal and lumber from barges on the canal. The site now has a flashy supermarket with outdoor escalators, and the canal was lined with paved paths and faux-log fences.
“This isn’t it,” Sanchez said as the bus pulled up at the spot where the map said the train station used to be. “Sukoshi mo,” he said to the driver, using Japanese he had kept in the recesses of his brain for 70 years to tell him to go a little farther.
So they did, to Omori. There, Sanchez told tales to fellow former POWs: Jack Schwartz, 99, who as a Navy civil engineer was captured on Guam on the third day of the war for the United States; and Oral Nichols, 93, who was a civilian helping to oversee the construction of an airstrip on Wake Island when it fell easily to the Japanese. He was imprisoned for virtually the entire war.
They stopped for lunch. Sanchez chose sushi. He ate the raw fish and roe with chopsticks and slurped his soup straight from the bowl, just like a local.
Back on the bus, crawling through the gridlock, the men tried to remember Japanese characters and sound out the words on sides of trucks and shop fronts.They joked about how the food was much better this time around and marveled at the ubiquitous heated toilet seats.
Schwartz, from Hanford, Calif., was eager to get to Kawasaki, south of Tokyo, to the site of the camp where he spent more than half of his 1,367 days as a POW. As an officer, he had been put in charge of the camp, a job he said came with no authority but plenty of blame, meaning that he suffered his share of beatings.
“I consider myself the luckiest POW,” he said. “I didn’t have to do hard labor because I was an officer, and I didn’t get that sick, and I was never that terribly mistreated.”
Schwartz, who had a career in the Navy after the war, has recently been transcribing the diaries he kept in the camp. As the bus made its way toward Kawasaki, Schwartz’s son Jack Jr. read out a diary entry that recorded the mundane and the mortifying with equanimity.
The entry reads, “September 2. Arrived at Yokohama at nine and took 10 minute ride to Kawasaki. Trucked to camp. What a place. High stockade. 2nd floor windows barred. Other prisoners were already present. We were forced by a firing squad to take an oath not to escape etc.”
Once the former POWs arrived at the site of the Kawasaki camp, however, a guard told Schwartz that he was not allowed in the compound to have his photo taken next to the factory where he once worked, even as Jack Jr., stressed his father’s age and the significance of the place.
Still, Schwartz was moved just to be there again. “I tell you what, seeing this makes the whole trip worthwhile,” he said.
“It’s pretty cool, huh, Dad?” Jack Jr. asked.
“Sure is, sure is,” came the response.
What was striking about the three former POWs was not just how little resentment they harbored but how happy they seemed for Japan.
“I get a kick out of seeing how well this nation is doing,” said Nichols, who spent time working in an open-pit iron mine in northern Japan. He also worked in the office, and was tickled when the foreign ministry presented him with his wartime records this week. He’d typed them.
“I’m amazed at the growth of this city,” he said. “It’s all just unbelievable.”
Of course, not everyone is so forgiving. For some, the memories of what happened here remain fresh and the wounds raw.
For almost everyone, though, the motivation for making the long trip across the Pacific was to finally close a difficult chapter of their lives.
“I’d say that all seven of these POWs are at different stages of closure,” Sanchez’s son David said, before concluding that the trip is one that the men, running short on time, needed to make. “This is good for them.”