WWII Veteran Who Fought for Apology From Japan Dies at 96

Bataan Death March
Bataan Death March

Lester Tenney served in the US Army during World War II as a tank commander. He survived the infamous Bataan Death March and spent his last years pushing for Japan to apologize for atrocities committed during WWII. He passed away at the age of 96.

In 2012, he told an interviewer that he had learned to forgive, but insisted that he would never forget.

Tenney survived the eight-day, 73-mile forced to hike and three years doing forced labor in a coal mine. He shared his story with reporters, civic leaders, and school groups. He also recorded his experiences in a book, “My Hitch in Hell.” He was able to get apologies from government leaders and a corporation that benefited from forced PoW labor.

Tenney died recently in Carlsbad, California, according to his David Levi, Tenney’s grandson.

Tenney was born in Chicago on July 1, 1920. He joined in the US Army in 1940 and was stationed in the Philippines. In December 1941, following their attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese invaded other Pacific islands, including the Philippines. Allied troops, 15,000 Americans and 60,000 Filipinos, were forced to retreat to the Bataan peninsula.

For over three months, the Allied troops fought off the invaders until they ran out of food, ammunition, and room to move. Major General Edward King finally gave the order to surrender.

In temperatures that reached higher than 110 degrees, the soldiers marched for four days without food or water. Anyone who complained or failed to keep up was stabbed, shot or beheaded. “If you fell down, you died. If you stopped walking, you died,” Tenney recalled.

Around the halfway point of the march, a Japanese officer on a horse injured Tenney’s left shoulder with a sword. Two other soldiers held him up while a medic stitched up the wound.

Tenney kept himself going by making small goals for himself. He would just try to make it to the next marker on the road. By the time they reached the PoW camp, thousands of prisoners had died.

He was able to escape, briefly, before being recaptured and put on a ship for Omuta, Japan. He worked in a coal mine there, across the bay from Nagasaki where the second atomic bomb was detonated, leading to Japan’s surrender.

He returned home with only eight teeth, the rest were knocked out by prison guards. His wife, thinking he had died, had remarried. He woke at night from nightmares and was ashamed when he was awake. He said, “I wasn’t so proud of being a prisoner of war.”

In 1959, he met Betty Levi and the two married one year later. He earned degrees in business from San Diego State University and USC and became a professor. In 1966, he moved with his wife to Tempe, Arizona, and began teaching at Arizona State while starting his own company, University Research Associates. URA provided financial and retirement planning for dozens of US companies.

Once he retired, he published his memoir and began placing pressure on Japanese authorities who would not admit what had occurred during the war. In 1999, he joined with other PoWs to sue five mining companies for reparations. The suit was dismissed by a US federal judge based on a 1951 peace treaty between the US and Japan.

Tenney went to Japan and spoke to school groups about the Bataan Death March. Japanese schools did not even mention the march in their history books. He gave frequent interviews in both the US and Japan, appearing on television news segments in both countries.

In 2009, he welcomed Japanese Ambassador Ichiro Fujisaki to the annual convention of the Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor. Fujisaki apologized on behalf of Japan from behind the podium.

The next year, Tenney traveled to Tokyo to take part in the Peace, Friendship and Exchange Initiative. The initiative was a gesture of reconciliation to WWII prisoners from the Japanese government.

In 2015, he was invited to Washington, D.C., to watch prime minister Shinzo Abe’s speech to Congress. Tenney, and other veterans, reported being unimpressed by Abe’s effort to move past the atrocities. Later that day, Abe apologized to Tenney in person.

Tenney’s final mission was to obtain apologies from the mining companies that had benefited from his forced labor. Last month, he received a letter from Mitsubishi Materials Corp. They were not the company that imprisoned him, but Tenney was grateful for the gesture and was optimistic the others would apologize as well, Los Angeles Times reported.

Tenney is survived by his wife, son, two stepsons, seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE