Lester I. Tenney
Born: Chicago, IL (1920)

US Army, the 192nd Tank Battalion
- Bataan Death March, Camp O’Donnell,
Camp Cabanatuan, Toko Maru,
Fukuoka camp #17, Mitsui Coalmine
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The March 

Unfortunately for the men on the Bataan march, the Japanese plan for the evacuation of their captive prisoners was based on three assumptions, all of which proved to be without merit. The first assumption was that there were only between 25,000 and 35,000 military people on Bataan. The correct number may never be known. This is due to the large number of men killed the day before the surrender, and the large number of men who escaped into the jungle or attempted to reach Corregidor. In addition to the military, there were almost 25,000 Filipino civilians who also sought the shelter and expected safety of the Bataan Peninsula. Therefore, the number of people in Bataan at the time of the surrender was closer to 105,000. The number that actually started the infamous Bataan Death March has been estimated at 65,000 Filipino military, 28,000 civilians and 12,000 Americans. Considerably more than the Japanese had estimated.

The second assumption made by the Japanese was that the American forces were in good physical condition and capable of a sustained march without much food or water. The reality of this assumption was just the opposite. The men on Bataan had their rations cut to as few as 800 calories a day during the past forty-five days. The food that the men received consisted of rice and a very small spoonful of "C" rations, (an emergency military field ration of food intended to be used under combat conditions, consisting of specially prepared and packaged meats) augmented in some cases by a snake or a monkey or two, or possibly even an iguana. For all of the men on the front lines, there were only two meals a day. This starvation diet brought along with it scurvy, pellagra, beriberi and of course the lack of the ability to fight off the malaria bug or any other sickness. We were anything but ready to march, with or without water and food. Those of us able to walk should have been in the hospital, those in the hospital looked as if they were dead.

The third assumption by the Japanese was that all details of the evacuation of the prisoners was planned to perfection; that they knew what had to be done and how to do it. In fact, the Japanese soldiers didn't know what they were supposed to do. No sooner had one group of Japanese lined us up and told us to start walking than another group of Japanese told us to wait. All of these orders were issued in Japanese, and if we didn't respond immediately we would be hit, spat upon, shoved or in some cases shot for not obeying orders. Once again, it was obvious they wanted to "get even," wanted revenge, wanted to show us they were superior. And of course in some situations it was simply a matter of the guards being ignorant of the outside world, and thinking that everyone understood Japanese. They became irritated by our slowness to respond and our inability to understand their commands.

Our lack of understanding of the Japanese language, their customs and their military discipline contributed heavily to our casualties on the Bataan Death March. We were aware that many Japanese soldiers spoke a little English, but they wouldn't dare reveal this in front of their comrades, for fear of accusations of being pro-American. Of course I realized that there were far more Japanese who spoke English than there were Americans who spoke Japanese.

Each day on the march we trudged along like zombies. We walked from six-thirty in the morning till eight or nine at night. Most of the days we would get a few minutes rest when they changed guards, otherwise it was hit and miss regarding a rest period. The guards were always fresh, they only walked for about three miles and then they changed with fresh troops for the next three or four miles. This constant changing of the guards kept us always on edge -- not knowing what the new group would want us to do, or not want us to do. Not only that, but the new guards were always gung-ho about making a mark for themselves with their fellow soldiers and of course, the officers. In addition, they were well-rested and were able to walk at a faster pace than we were. This made for a feeling of fearful apprehension every hour of the march. In addition, I made sure that I never again walked on the outside of the column of marching men.

Due to the poor road condition caused by both the weather and the constant movement of Japanese troops and their vehicles into Bataan, our poor physical condition, the lack of food and water, and our over-all defeatist attitude we were able to walk only about a mile, or two at the most, for every hour on the march. Add to this the constant screaming and the beatings by the Japanese guards, and you can see why we were merely trudging along the road at a snail's pace. I would wonder where they were taking us. If they were going to kill us, why not do it now where we could be buried along the side of the road and no one would ever know the difference. Walking with a destination in mind would have been much easier. If the Japanese had told us "Walk for seventy miles then you rest," or, "We are taking you to prison camp so you can work for us," it would have been better than walking for what appeared to be eternity.

Once again, we hadn't had a taste of food in days, and we were nearly going out of our minds from thirst. We were all slowly becoming completely dehydrated, and we realized what this would lead to. The Japanese, we were told, planned on feeding us once we arrived in the town of Balanga, but this was thirty-five miles from where we were taken prisoner. Under normal conditions, and with a well-rested, properly trained and adequately fed army, a march of this distance could be made in about nineteen hours. But we were not in the condition necessary for a march of this type, or any type. First, it was a "forced" march, second, we had been on a 800-calorie starvation diet the past two months, and third, we had been fiercely fighting for four months against overwhelming odds. We were tired, worn out and in need of prolonged rest and medical attention. And lastly, the heat of the day seemed to suck any energy we had left.

On the fifth day of the march, I witnessed one of the most sadistic and inhuman incidents on the entire march, and I did witness some of the worst. We had just stopped for a brief rest while waiting for another group to catch up with us. When the other group finally arrived the guard ordered us up and we were told to start walking. One of the men had a very bad case of malaria, he had just barely made it to the rest area. He was burning up with fever, and severely disoriented. When ordered to stand up he couldn't. Without a minute's hesitation the guard hit him over the head with the butt of his gun, knocked him down to the ground, and then called for two near-by prisoners to start digging a hole to bury the fallen prisoner. The two men started digging, and when the hole was about a foot deep the guard ordered the two men to place the sick man in the hole and bury him alive. The two men shook their heads, they couldn't do that.

 So, once again without warning -- without any effort to settle the problem any other way -- the guard shot the bigger of the two, and then pulled two more men from the line and ordered them to dig another hole to bury the second fallen man. The Japanese guard got his point across. Two holes were dug and the two bodies placed in the holes and dirt thrown over them. The first man, still alive, started screaming as the dirt was thrown on him. A group of about five or six of us witnessed this slaughter of innocent, unarmed men. As for me, I turned away and hid my face in my hands so that the Japanese wouldn't see me throw up. It was one of many experiences I'll never forget, one that made me sick for days. I asked myself over and over again, "Is this what I'm staying alive for? To be executed tomorrow or the next day, or the next? How will I be able to continue to endure these cruelties?" The strength of my resolve was once again going to be challenged. After wiping away the tears and the aftermath of vomit, with my eyes focused along the winding road in front of us, I began seeking another landmark to use as my objective. I had to have a goal; I had to go on. (Excerpted from Lester I. Tenney My Hitch in Hell: The Battan Death March, Washington, DC: Brassey’s, 1995.)

Response by Rina Kohata, a Japanese six grader   

On September 28, 2001, Mr. Tenney came to our class and spoke to us about his prisoner of war experience during the war. I realized that POWs went through extreme hardship when I listened to Mr. Tenney’s story. When a Japanese soldier told Mr. Tenney, “Tabako wo dase” (Give me cigarette), he could not understand the Japanese words and ended up being beaten.

What I was most impressed in Mr. Tenney’s speech was the story of the Bataan Death March. He explained to us that during the March many people became sick and could not walk. But Japanese soldiers hit them thinking that POWs were not following their orders. Mr. Tenney said that POWs wanted to rest because they were sick but Japanese soldiers could not understand it and shot those who would not walk.

I think that people can understand each other if they truly try to do so. But in this case,  they were in a war seeing each other as enemy and I think that nobody tried to understand each other. I believe that it is important for us to learn about other country’s custom, not to be close minded and try to put ourselves in other’s place in order to understand their feeling.

Therefore, I want to learn about others, appreciate their feelings and be friendly to people from other countries. And we, who will become adults in the future, want to create a world where all countries live in peace and friendship with no war or discrimination. 

Dr. Tenney on his forced labor lawsuit against Mitsui

Our legal fight has never been about money. It has been about honor, dignity and responsibility. We former POWs, like the great country of Japan, want our honor and dignity restored. But we also want those who violated our rights as human beings, to accept their responsibility. Accepting responsibility is the honorable thing to do. And Japan, as the whole world knows, is the epitome and creator of the meaning of honor. Likewise, the companies that enslaved thousands of Americans, and failed to provide them with the very basic necessities of life should, once and for all, come forward and apologize for the cruelties that were handed out to the innocent and unarmed prisoners of war who were mistreated, underfed and deprived of medical care during this period of slavery.

If Japan is truly our friend, then as a gesture of friendship, they should commit themselves to restoring their honor, and apologize for their transgressions.

Statement of House of Councilors member Tomiko Okazaki

The day before yesterday, I met Dr. Tenney who is visiting Japan… He says, “I forgave Japan, forgave but will not forget…In order to reclaim my freedom I want Japanese company to say one word ‘sorry’ and as a proof to show that I was not a slave I want them to compensate me, whatever amount.” Those victims (former POWs) who seek an apology and compensation are not necessarily all anti-Japanese. They seek to restore their honor and human dignity…

During House of Councilors Cabinet meeting on March 20, 2003

Ms. Okazaki (far right) with Lester & Betty Tenney

Letter from a retired Japanese high school English teacher

Dear Lester,

How thankful I am to have met you in 2000! You were the speaker of the year in the Memorial Service at the British Common Wealth War Cemetery in Yokohama. (In this cemetery, 1873 former POWs are buried, most of whom are in their twenties. Around 35,000 Allied POWs, captured in the southern Pacific countries, were transported to Japan to be engaged in forced labor, and 3500 couldn’t make it home.) You talked to them in your prayer, and then in the meeting afterwards, you talked to Japanese people about your experience in the Bataan Death March, camps in the Philippines, and in Mitsui Call Mine in Omuta.

I admire the spirit in which you speak to the Japanese, the former enemies. From the beginning, your great warm heart and wonderfully positive attitude have been overwhelming and you have struck me as a wonderful human being. You challenge difficulties; the emotional barrier must have been hard to crash between yourself and your tormentors, and killers of your friends. My country Japan and the company still owe you the recognition of and apology for the wrong doings during the war. I as for one, your friends in Japan support you in the on going fight.

Thank you for coming to Japan to talk to a lot of young people including my students at high school. You made them laugh with a witty magic show, and said, ‘ You don’t have to apologize me for what happened to me in the past war, but you are responsible for your own life.’ You encouraged them to have both short and long term goals of life. Listening to how young friends of yours were killed in the Death March, they shed tears and realized the importance of the abilities of communication and understanding of each other’s culture. The fairness of your outlook and the warmth of your existence worked their magic on the audience.

I cherish all the memories of our conversation and exchanges as work proceeded on the translation of your book, by the three friends of mine and myself. After all, I believe friendship is the best defense, and I hope you agree.

With my love and respect,

Yukako Ibuki

Letter from a former Japanese Imperial Army soldier who was forced to labor in the Soviet Union from 1945 to 1948

Dear Dr. Tenney,

Your words, "Forgiveness and responsibility go hand in hand. One without the other is meaningless," (Asahi Shimbun op-ed section Nov. 17, 2001 ) left a profound impression on me because that was exactly the same conclusion I reached as someone who had gone through a similar tragedy. I believe that the day will surely come when Justice is finally restored. I pray that you will be well when you see that day.

Koichi Ikeda


Mr. Tenney in a recent photo

* 1999 Video Clip:  Dr. Tenney returned to the former campsite

* 2010 article:  Unusual bond heals wounds over Japan's treatment of POWs