George Summers of Riverside, California said he was captured shortly after the start of the war with Japan and spent nearly four years as a POW.BY Mark Muckenfuss
The Press-Enterprise, January 04, 2013
Riverside resident George Summers may be one of the last World War II prisoners of war to participate in a reconciliation tour with Japan.
Summers, 90, spent the entire war in Japanese prison camps. In October, he traveled to Japan with a group of other former POWs, visiting some of the sites where he was held captive and talking to school children and community leaders about his experiences.
The tour is meant to serve both as an apology by the Japanese government for how Summers and others were treated during the war, and as a way to educate younger generations about the culture of the time.
Four out of 10 Americans never made it out of Japan’s prison camps. The men were routinely starved and beaten at the same time they were being ordered to perform strenuous manual labor such as moving rocks, digging coal or unloading freight.
The Japanese government has apologized to those who were held as prisoners during the war and for years has sponsored reconciliation trips for former POWs. But not American POWs. Only in the past three years have groups from the United States been invited.
Lester Tenney, 90, a former POW who recounted his war experiences in a book called “My Hitch in Hell,” said he found out about the trips because of a close relationship he had with Ichiro Fujisaki, the former Japanese ambassador to the United States.
Tenney said he was upset when he found out that American POWs had been excluded.
Fujisaki passed along Tenney’s complaint, and the Japanese government responded. Tenney, who lives in Carlsbad, said he was asked to arrange a tour of American POWs. The first group of 14 went in 2010. He also organized groups in 2011 and 2012.
Now, he feels like he is getting to old to continue to substantial work it takes to keep setting up the tours.
“If they ask me to do it,” Tenney said, “I may just recommend somebody else.”
Finding someone may not be easy.
“There’s not a lot of people around that would be willing to do this,” Tenney said. “It can’t be a POW, because they’re all sick and old. They’re like me.”
LESSONS FROM WAR
Summers said he hopes the program will continue. He believes it’s beneficial for the younger generations to hear first-hand about the horrors inflicted on the 27,000 American POWs by the Japanese military. He especially wants to show youngsters how terrible war can be.
After sharing his experience with a group of Japanese fifth-graders, he said, he tried to relate it to their mindset.
“I told them, ‘What would it be like if you, who are 10 years old, just eight years later had to go through this?’” he said. “I said, ‘War is the curse of mankind.’”
He recalled seeing villagers from the town below scrambling up the hill toward the base as they were strafed by Japanese planes. There was no order or coordinated counterattack by the Americans, he said. When a bomb blast at a barracks wounded him in the leg, he and a fellow Marine fled into the nearby coconut groves.
They hid for two days, believing that if they surrendered, they would be killed. In desperation, Summers took off his T-shirt and waved it as a flag of surrender. Instead of facing bullets, he said, they were treated kindly.
“We were the only ones that were treated good by the Japanese,” he said. The soldier guarding them gave them rice and corned beef. “I liked that Japanese guy.” It didn’t last.
Aboard a transport ship to Japan, he said, “they were throwing us rotten rice and radishes. A lot of it had maggots in it.” Dysentery was rampant.
“We lost two or three (men) on the ship,” he said. “I’m not sure.”
Many more were lost in the camps. He spent six months in the notorious prison camp at Tanagawa, near Osaka, known for the severe malnutrition and high death rate among its POWs.
“We were supposed to get a rice ball and a pickled radish at noontime,” he said. “If you got sick they gave you nothing but liquid rice.”
Bombing by allied planes forced a move to another camp, Umida Bonshu, also in Osaka. Conditions there were far better.
“I gained some weight there because things were good,” he said.
Of the nearly four years Summers spent in captivity, nearly three were spent working at Umida Bonshu [Umeda Bunsho, near Osaka run by Nippon Express, still a thriving company] as a stevedore, unloading freighters.
But six months before the war was over, he was moved again. He found himself in Fushiki, on the west coast of Honshu. The conditions were the most dire he had faced.
“The whole time it was a matter of getting food,” he said. “We were starving to death. There was nothing to eat there but raw soy beans.”
He resorted to desperate measures.
“We had to clean out the Japanese toilets,” he said.
Among the human waste, he said, were undigested soy beans that had been swallowed whole.
“I was picking out the soy beans and washing them off. I was eating them like crazy.”
Whether his fellow prisoners were doing the same when they had latrine duty, he doesn’t know.
“Nobody talked about stuff like that at the time,” he said.
Summers said he had a hard time readjusting to civilian life after the war.
He left the service and spent seven years in the Merchant Marine, going on to work for General Telephone [GTE] and as a financial clerk for the city of Anaheim. He has lived in his Riverside home, with an orange grove next to his house, since 1972 and still works in real estate investment.
Although a curio cabinet in his home is filled with Japanese figures, and a Japanese curtain hangs in the doorway of his office, his recent trip was the first time he had visited the country since the 1950s. He believes one of the docks he saw in a harbor might have been there during the war. If so, it was the only landmark he recognized.
“It’s all new,” he said. “It’s a beautiful place. The people are so kind.”
A few of the people he met there may not have felt the same way about him.
“The only ones that haven’t apologized are the companies that we worked for. To this day, they still don’t want to compensate the POWs for the slave labor we provided. I mentioned it to them when we met with officials with Mitsubishi.
“Everybody thought I was going to start another world war over there,” he said with a laugh.