The Unjust Enrichment of American POWs by Japanese Corporations

by willard ~ December 5th, 2010. Filed under: HIST 299, HIST299.

The Unjust Enrichment of Japanese Corporations by American POWs

During World War II, the Empire of Japan used captured American soldiers as slave labor to fill the void left by Japanese soldiers sent off to war. Of these captured soldiers, almost half came from the American surrender at the Battle of Bataan, the largest surrender in American history. Over twelve thousand American soldiers surrendered to an overwhelming Japanese force on the Bataan Peninsula in the Philippines on April 9th, 1942. On empty stomachs and sore limbs, the soldiers were marched through sixty miles of Philippine jungle in the boiling heat. Many became so weak they collapsed along the march and were subsequently beaten or executed by their Japanese captors. The Bataan Death March, as it would come to be known, was only the beginning of the horrors these captured soldiers would experience. After being released following the Japanese surrender three years later, the American government did nothing to help these captured soldiers, even after using the Death March as a propaganda tool. When the soldiers were finally freed after the war, they were welcomed home with orders not to speak of their time in captivity and received little governmental support and compensation for their lost years. The American government neglected their own veteran’s needs by providing little for their time in captivity, and blocked any attempts for compensation from the Japanese companies for which they worked in order to maintain a strong economic and political link with the Japanese in the quickly emerging globalized economy.

The American public was unaware of the tragedy on Bataan until almost two years after the Death March. The New York Times first ran a story on January 28th, 1944, after the military released what they knew of the Death March.[1] The New York Times article stirred up nationalist feelings across America, which did not go unnoticed by the government, which would subsequently use the story as a tool for creating propaganda. The American government acted quickly to use the Death March to their advantage. Images of the Death March were incorporated into military training videos and recruitment posters. One famous recruitment ad flashed the New York Times headline[2] and encouraged the reader to “stay on the job until every murdering Jap is wiped out!” Even President Truman used the march as a means to justify the use of atomic weapons in his radio address following the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, telling the world that “we have used it (The atomic bomb) against those… who have starved and beaten and executed American prisoners of war, against those who have abandoned all pretense of obeying international laws of warfare.”[3] From this one can gather that the American government wanted to use the Death March as a means of creating anti-Japanese sentiments in America and using it as a rallying cry for new recruits. With so much public exposure, one might expect for those that survived their internment in Japan to receive a hero’s welcome back home, however the American government apparently had other ideas.

The American prisoners were released from captivity following the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, understandably eager to return home. However, most of the soldiers captured by the Japanese were detained by military officials for a debriefing period in order to determine where the soldiers had been held and what they were forced to do. These debriefing periods were also used to determine the mental stability of the soldiers. Lester Tenney and Anton Bilek recall the reception that awaited them back home in their memoirs, My Hitch in Hell, and No Uncle Sam: The Forgotten of Bataan, respectively.[4] As the rest of the nation celebrated the end of the war, Tenney recalls returning to America “…quietly, anonymously, without any fanfare or banners waving to welcome us…”[5] For many soldiers this was unexpected, especially considering the regal reception many soldiers experienced upon their return from Europe. Tenney attributed this to the delay in the soldiers return home, and that the post-war euphoria the country experienced immediately after the war’s conclusion had begun to die down.

However, in her book Unjust Enrichment, Linda Holmes suggests that the American government had ulterior motives in keeping these former POWs out of the limelight. As many of the former POWs had become severely emaciated and sick during captivity, Holmes suggests that the government purposely delayed the soldier’s return home in an attempt to keep the public unaware of the kind of suffering these soldiers experienced. Further supporting this idea is the fact that the soldiers were forbidden from talking about their time in captivity to anyone.[6]

After their return home, the former POW’s struggle for justice began. As many former POWs were still busy rebuilding their lives, the American and Japanese governments signed the Peace Treaty of 1951. The soldiers would soon find that this treaty waived any claims of war crimes against Japan, therefore prohibiting any soldier from suing the Japanese corporations for which they worked for any reparations. This was immediately met with sharp criticism from those who had been held in captivity in Japan. According to accounts from Elizabeth and Michael Norman’s Tears in the Darkness, multiple former POWs claimed that they were told during their debriefing period that the Japanese corporations responsible would fund the majority of their post-war support system.[7] However, no POW ever received any monetary reparations from the Japanese corporations, and the only compensation many soldiers received came the American government. According to a report in the American Journal of International Law, the survivors were paid $2.50 a day for time in captivity, adding up to approximately $3,103 for over three years in captivity.[8][9] This clearly inadequate compensation did little to mollify the soldiers whom it affected. However, the treaty had been signed and it was clear the American government was not siding with its own veterans.

With so much of the public eye still fixed on the reconstruction of Europe and tensions with the Soviet Union beginning to escalate in the late 1940s, there was very little public support for the soldiers’ cause. Furthermore, the soldiers were still not allowed to discuss their time in captivity with anyone, including any reporters who were interested in their story.[10] With no one telling their stories, the fates of these former POWs slowly faded out of the public consciousness. Since most of Europe was in shambles after the war, the American government began funneling millions of dollars into the war-ravaged continent, in hopes of gaining allies and reestablishing Europe as an industrial competitor.[11] On the Pacific front, the government also realized a unique opportunity in Japan. Unlike the slow recovery process in Europe, Japan’s infrastructure and economy experienced an incredibly swift recovery in the few years following the war. As the Supreme Commander of Allied Powers, General Douglas MacArthur was charged with helping rebuild and stabilize post-war Japan. With American supervision, Japan was put on the fast track to industrialization. By the time the Peace Treaty of 1951 was signed, Japan had industrialized so quickly that it prompted General MacArthur to proclaim that “The Japanese people… have undergone the greatest reformation recorded in modern history.”[12] In the emerging globalizing economy, the Truman administration realized the value in maintaining strong ties with nations that could be considered valuable trade partners. This gave America a valuable ally in the global economy; one the American government knew it could not risk losing. The lingering problem of reparations for former Japanese POWs was solved by simply forbidding them to sue Japanese companies. After 1951, the soldiers captured at Bataan had little choice but to move on with their lives.

Ironically, the Peace Treaty of 1951 only addressed the American soldiers captured by the Japanese, and not the Japanese-American citizens who were held in internment camps throughout much of World War II. Possibly inspired by the Civil Rights Movement in the early 1960s, former Japanese internees began campaigning for reparations from the American government. This continued until 1988, when President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which provided $20,000 for each surviving detainee and included a formal apology from the American government.[13] Many former POWs were insulted that Japanese-American citizens received reparations, while America’s own soldiers did not.[14] This could very well have inspired some of the remaining POWs to continue their fight against the Japanese corporations for reparations.

With the Peace Treaty of 1951, the American government successfully curbed the efforts of the former POWs in their attempt to gain compensation from their Japanese captors. Most of the former POWs moved on with their lives, putting the past behind them. However, recently there has been a surge of interest in the field, possibly due to the publicity of Ghost Soldiers by Hampton Sides and Tears in the Darkness by Elizabeth and Michael Norman. Ghost Soldiers tells the story of the heroic rescue of five hundred captives from Bataan by a regiment of Army Rangers. In Tears in the Darkness, Elizabeth and Michael Norman conducted hundreds of interviews with former POWs from Bataan. This surge of public attention in the early 2000s led to the revival of attempts by former POWs to gain reparations, almost sixty years after their internment. In 2000, after realizing Japan was not going to pay reparations from World War II, former Allied powers Canada and the United Kingdom allotted close to fifteen thousand dollars to every former POW held in Japan. These reparations were funded by the nations themselves, and served as a “debt of honor” to those that had served.[15] The Congressional record from July of 2003 shows the push by Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin for the appropriation of benefits to the former POWs, to be paid by the Japanese corporations who used them as slave labor. However, the notion was struck down almost immediately, as the American government worried that they would “undermine our relations with Japan, a key ally.”[16] Here we can again see the continuation of the international policy established in the years following World War II. From this, one can gather that in today’s globalized world, economic security is still more important to the government then rewarding its veterans.

By establishing themselves as the authority in Japan after World War II, the American government managed to forge a strong ally in the rapidly industrializing world. However, this came at a high cost to those imprisoned and enslaved by the Japanese during the war. The American government neglected their own veterans’ needs by providing little to no compensation for their time in captivity, and blocked any attempts for compensation from the Japanese companies for which they worked; all to maintain a strong economic and political link with the Japanese in the quickly emerging globalized economy. Today many of the veterans of Bataan are nearing the end of their lives and many have given up hope of ever seeing a dime from their Japanese captors. Many are simply seeking a public apology, perhaps to gain some closure on what must be their darkest years.[17] Unfortunately, the American and Japanese governments have become far too intertwined in today’s world to risk losing their alliance for a few “Battling Bastards from Bataan.”[18]


Albrecht, James, and Edwards, Joseph, and Popravak, Terrence. “’Come as You Are’ Warfare: The Bataan Example” Military Review Vol. 83, Issue 2 (2003), pg. 84-89.

Bilek, Anton. No Uncle Sam: The Forgotten of Bataan. Ohio, Kent State University Press, 2003.

Falk, Stanley L. Bataan, A March of Death. USA: Penguin Publishing, 1987.

Frazier, Glenn D. Hell’s Guest. GA: Williams & Company Publishers, 2007.

Harkin, Tom (Iowa). Congressional Record 17 July 2003: 18511.

Holmes, Linda. Unjust Enrichment. IN: Stackpole Books, 2004.

Jackson, Charles, and Norton, Bruce. I Am Alive!: A United States Marine’s Story of Survival in a World War II Japanese POW Camp. CA, Presidio Press, 2003.

MacArthur, Douglas. “Farewell Speech to Congress.” United States Congress. April 19. 1951.

Morton, Louis. “The Battling Bastards of Bataan,” in Military Affairs, Vol. 15, No. 2. Society for Military History, 1951.

Nelson, Jim. US-Japan Dialogue on POWs. “Issues of the Bataan Death March Revisited.” (Accessed September 10th, 2010)

Norman, Michael, and Norman, Elizabeth. “Surviving Bataan” American Heritage Vol. 59, Issue 2 (2009), pg 56-63.

Norman, Michael, and Norman, Elizabeth. Tears in the Darkness: The Story of the Bataan Death March and It’s Aftermath. USA: Macmillan Publishing, 2009.

Norman, Elizabeth. We Band of Angels: The Untold Story of American Nurses Trapped on Bataan by the Japanese. CA: Atria Publishing, 2000.

Payne, Stephen. “Lest We Forget: World War II” Propaganda. (Accessed September 10th, 2010)

Reynolds, Gary. “U.S. Prisoners of War and Civilian American Citizens Captured and Interned by Japan in World War II: The Issue of Compensation by Japan.” Congressional Research Service Report for Congress. Congress Research Service: 12/17/2002.

Sides, Hampton. Ghost Soldiers: The Forgotten Epic Story of World War II’s Most Dramatic Mission. IL: Doubleday Publishing, 2001.

Tenney, Lester. My Hitch In Hell: The Bataan Death March. NY: Potomac Books, 2007.

Tokudome, Kinue. “The Bataan Death March and the 66-Year Struggle for Justice.” Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus (April 14, 2008) (Accessed September 10th, 2010)

Truman, Harry S. Public Papers of the President, 1945.

Waldron, Ben, and Burneson, Emily. Corregidor: From Paradise to Hell!. IN: Trafford Publishing, 2006.

Wilkinson, Stephan. “The Seven Most Daring Raids Ever” Military History Vol. 26 Issue 4 (2009), p34-41.

Woods, Lewis. “Horror Tale Bared: 3 Survivors Say Thirst Sent Men Crazy on ‘March of Death’”. New York Times, January 28, 1944, pg. 1.

Young, Donald J. The Battle of Bataan: A History of the 90 Day Siege and Eventual Surrender of 75,000 Filipino and United States Troops to the Japanese in World War II. NC: Mcfarland Publishing, 1992.

American Society of International Law. “World War II Era Claims against Japanese Companies.” The American Journal of International Law, Vol. 95, No. 1, January 2001. Pg. 139-143.

Commission on Wartime Relocation and Interment of Civilians. “Personal Justice Denied.” February 1983.

General Announcement. “Jap Newspapers Ordered to Tell of Atrocities” The Canberra Times, September 15, 1945, Front Page.

PBS American Experience. “Bataan Rescue: The Most Daring Rescue Mission of World War II.” PBS Online. (Accessed Sep 10, 2010)

PBS American Experience. “Capture and Death March” PBS Online. (Accessed Sep 10, 2010)

“War Department Orientation Film”. Know Your Enemy – Japan – 1366A, produced by US Army Pictoral Service, 1944.

[1] Lewis Woods, “Horror Tale Bared: 3 Survivors Say Thirst Sent Men Crazy on ‘March of Death’,” New York Times, 28 Jan. 1944, 1.

[2] This is the same headline from January 28th, 1944, when the public was informed of what happened on Bataan.

[3] Harry S. Truman, Public Papers of the Presidents, 1945, 212.

[4] Anton Bilek, No Uncle Sam: The Forgotten of Bataan,(OH: Kent State Press, 2003) and Lester Tenney, My Hitch in Hell: The Bataan Death March (NY: Potomac Books, 2007).

[5] Lester Tenney, My Hitch in Hell, 147.

[6] Linda Holmes, Unjust Enrichment (IN: Stackpole Books, 2004).

[7] Michael & Elizabeth Norman, Tears in the Darkness, 313.

[8] When adjusted for inflation in 2000, this totaled only about $20,000.

[9] American Society of International Law, “World War II Era Claims against Japanese Companies” (The American Journal of International Law, 95.1. Jan. 2001) 139-143.

[10] This trend of silence continued throughout the century. Linda Holmes, author of Unjust Enrichment, states in her introduction that she tried to write her work in the early 1990’s, but there were too few former POWs willing to discuss their time in Japan.

[11] Linda Holmes, Unjust Enrichment (IN: Stackpole Books, 2004).

[12] Douglas MacArthur, “Farewell Speech to Congress,” United States Congress (April 19, 1951).

[13] Overall, this cost the American government about 1.2 billion dollars for approximately 60,000 former detainees. Only about 6,000 American troops returned home from Japanese internment. Therefore, similar reparations for American troops would have cost the American government only about 10% of what they spent on reparations for Japanese-American detainees.

[14] Michael and Elizabeth Norman, Tears in the Darkness, 2009 & Hampton Sides, Ghost Soldiers (IL: Doubleday Publishing, 2001) 376-390.

[15] Gary Reynolds, “U.S. Prisoners of War and Civilian American Citizens Captured and Interned by Japan in World War II: The Issue of Compensation by Japan,” Congressional Research Service Report for Congress, Congress Research Service: 12/17/2002.

[16] Tom Harkin (Iowa), Congressional Record 17 July 2003: 18511.

[17] Michael and Elizabeth Norman, Tears in the Darkness, iv.

[18] Louis Morton, “The Battling Bastards of Bataan,” Military Affairs, Vol. 15, No. 2 (Society for Military History, 1951) i.

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