Thursday, February 01, 2024

Nippon Steel's Legacy of POW Slave Labor

‘Zero ethics’? Japan-US war wounds reopen over POW abuse as Nippon Steel buys American rival

Relatives say they are disappointed the US government failed to pressure Tokyo to face up to the historic abuses of prisoners by the Japanese firms during WWII
Americans would be shocked if they knew of the ‘inhumane’ treatment suffered by US prisoners at Japanese companies supporting the war effort, the relatives add

Relatives of American prisoners who were used as slave labourers during World War II have expressed anger at the purchase of US Steel by Nippon Steel Corp, claiming the Japanese company has made no effort to atone for or even admit the brutal treatment that was meted out to POWs.

They are also disappointed at the US government’s failure to pressure Japan to face up to the historic abuses of tens of thousands of POWs at the hands of companies that are today among the wealthiest in the world.

Workers at US Steel, union members and American consumers would be outraged if they knew what the forerunner of Nippon Steel had put captured servicemen through, they add.

The agreement for Nippon Steel to acquire the 122-year-old US firm for US$14.9 billion was announced in December, immediately triggering opposition from the United Steelworkers union and members of Congress.

Those complaints, however, were focused narrowly on concern over the “dire implications for the industrial base of the United States”, according to a letter signed by three Republican senators addressed to Janet Yellen, US Treasury secretary and chair of the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States. The deal is expected to close in the second quarter of 2024, subject to regulatory approvals.

Relatives of men who endured years of abuse and appalling conditions as they laboured in mines, shipyards and other industrial plants that supported Japan’s war effort say they are still waiting for a meaningful apology from industrial giants like Nippon Steel, which merged with Sumitomo Metal Industries in 2012 to form one of the largest steel conglomerates in the world.

Historians estimate that Nippon Steel and its ancillary companies used at least 4,000 American and Allied POWs at its industrial sites.

Nippon Steel is also embroiled in a bitter legal fight in South Korea, where courts have repeatedly ruled that it must pay compensation to the descendants of former forced labourers.

“I am disappointed to learn of Nippon Steel’s attempted acquisition of US Steel and I remain irate that Nippon Steel still has not apologised for or even acknowledged the use of POW labourers during World War II,” said Patrick Regan, 51, from Bolingbrook in Illinois.

“A company that cannot at least admit past misdeeds cannot be believed or trusted to do the right thing going forward,” said Regan, whose grandfather, US Army Air Corp Technical Sergeant Donald C Regan, was captured during the fall of Bataan in the Philippines in April 1942. “Its monetary value may be immense, but its ethical value is zero.”

Regan was held in the Philippines for 18 months after his surrender and “exploited as a slave labourer by Nippon Steel” at the 12-B Osaka camp, also known as Hirohata, for the last two years of the war, his grandson told This Week in Asia.

“He suffered from malaria, optic atrophy, severe malnutrition and other ailments during his time as a POW … As a labourer at Nippon Steel, his fingers were crushed while moving a heavy piece of equipment,” he said.

“The physical scars from that injury were still visible when I saw them as a young boy, and the emotional scars of his treatment as a POW remained until his death in 1984.”

Patrick Regan travelled to Japan with his father in 2023, visiting the site of his grandfather’s POW camp and the steel mill where he was put to work.

“The camp is now a quiet suburban neighbourhood,” he said. “There’s no mention of the POW camp that once stood there. The security gate outside the Nippon Steel complex … makes no hint of that history.”

Teresa Goodell, 64, from Beaverton in Oregon, echoes that anger over the mistreatment of her father, Commander Zemo C Tarnowski, in Japanese captivity and forced to labour as a stevedore at docks in Japan.

“The cruelty he suffered while imprisoned morphed into suffering for his family, despite his good intentions to the contrary,” she said. “This is what trauma does; it lives on.”

Expressing her “strong opposition to the US Steel purchase”, Goodell added that “Americans who were directly and indirectly harmed by Japanese cruelty deserve a greatly overdue formal apology from Nippon Steel prior to approval of the acquisition”..

Jan Thompson, president of the American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor Memorial Society, said: “I am shocked this is happening. US Steel symbolised America’s strength during World War II … The unions at US Steel also symbolise America’s ideals – fair wages, fair treatment and looking out for the welfare of workers.

“However, the POWs who were slave labourers for Nippon Steel or Sumitomo … were inhumanely treated as slave labourers and if they did not slave, they were not fed,” she said. “Work conditions were unsafe and beatings happened every day.”

Thompson’s father, Robert E Thompson, was a US Navy medic who spent three years in a prison hospital in Manila after the fall of the Philippines before being placed on a “hell ship” to Japan. After a journey during which both “hell ships” he was put on were sunk, his third transport finally arrived at the Japanese port of Moji. Only around 600 individuals from the 1,619 men who had left Manilla survived.

After his repatriation, Thompson would never allow any Japanese product into the family’s home.

“I do not think ordinary Americans know anything about the history of our POWs in Japan,” Jan Thompson said. “If they did know, I believe there would be blowback. I believe our veterans’ organisations would be outraged. I wonder why our government would allow this to happen.”

Mindy Kotler, director of Washington-based Asia Policy Point and a historian of Imperial Japan’s Allied prisoners of war, said no Japanese steel company had acknowledged POW slave labour or offered an apology.

“Many ordinary Americans do not even know that Japan was an enemy in World War II,” Kotler said. “And there is some surprise the Japanese companies have never done what German companies have, which is to apologise, pay compensation and teach the history of slave labour.”

In 1999, European steel giants Thyssen AG and Krupp agreed to a merger, subject to a condition requiring the creation of a foundation to make “humanitarian payments” to former forced labourers and other victims of the Nazi regime.

While ThyssenKrupp has contributed generously to the foundation, Tokyo has resisted efforts to encourage Japanese companies to take a similar path and insists that all claims were settled under the terms of the San Francisco Peace Treaty.

Kotler also noted that Tokyo’s position was contrary to that of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, who in September began advocating “human dignity” as a key principle alongside the “rule of law” in Japanese foreign policy.

“Here is an opportunity for Nippon Steel to do the right thing, to live up to its current corporate principles and Japan’s new efforts to ask its companies to engage in responsible business conduct by respecting human rights,” Kotler said.

“Maybe the company will finally acknowledge its use of American and Allied POW slave labour.”

Julian Ryall never expected to still be in Japan 24 years after he first arrived, but he quickly realised its advantages over his native London. He lives in Yokohama with his wife and children and writes for publications around the world.

Sunday, January 14, 2024

January 9, 1945 and The Smothers' Brothers

Pacific War historians usually remember January 9th, for General Douglas MacArthur's 1945 return to the main island of the Philippines, Luzon. In October 1944, the liberation of the Japanese-occupied archipelago had begun with the Battle of Leyte. On January 9th, the campaign moved to Luzon's Lingayen Gulf with 60,000 American troops landing to cheering Filipinos.

The last time MacArthur walked on Luzon was January 10, 1942. It was his one and only visit to the front on the Bataan Peninsula from his command center on the island of Corregidor. It is possible that this one day was chosen as the Bataan battlefield would have been relatively safe. Just days before, Japan's experienced 14th Army 48th Division (15,000 men) on Bataan had been transferred to the Dutch East Indies and replaced with the untrained reservists of the IJA's 65th Brigade (6,600 men).

Task Force 38
As MacArthur planned his return, Adm William Halsey's Third Fleet was tasked with disrupting Japanese shipping in the South China Sea, especially the Empire's resupply of the Philippines. Led by Vice Admiral John S McCain (yes, the grandfather of Senator McCain) Task Force 38 attacked Japanese shipping and air fields throughout the region. Historians call the Task Force's January 1945 operations a "rampage" toward Formosa, Luzon, and Indochina. By the time the Task Force exited the shipping lanes of the South China Sea, over 300,000 tons of enemy shipping and dozens of Japanese warships had been sunk. With follow-up air strikes against Japanese harbors and airfields in Formosa and the Ryukyu Islands, the success of the sweep was unprecedented.

This "carrier rampage" had dire consequences for the American POWs. It was on January 9th, that the Enoura Maru, a hell ship carrying 1,070 POWs from the Philippines, was bombed by planes off the USS Hornet (CV-12). The ship carrying mainly the last officers held in the Philippines was docked in Takao Harbor, Formosa and moored next to a tanker. One-third of the POWs onboard were killed or wounded. The survivors were put aboard the Brazil Maru on January 14 and transported north to the port of Moji, Japan. Only 600 or so survived the 16-day trip. MORE ON THE ENOURA MARU

Major Thomas Smothers
One of those survivors in Moji, Japan was Major Thomas Smothers, the father of the Smothers brothers. Major Smothers was CO of the 3rd Battalion of the 45th Infantry Regiment, Philippine Scouts. Major Smothers survived the Battle of Bataan and the Bataan Death March. It is possible he was among a number of 45th Inf. officers to have made the journey to the POW death Camp O'Donnell by truck. He then endured harsh captivity for nearly three years in Cabanatuan, a POW camp in the Philippines.

On 13 December 1944, he was among 1621 prisoners, the majority officers, who were marched from Bilibid Prison to Pier 7, Manila. At dusk, they were herded aboard the Oryoku Maru, divided into three groups, and forced down into three dark holds. What followed was probably the most infamous of the Hell Ship voyages. American bombers off the USS Hornet and USS Cabot sank the Oryoku Maru barely out of Manila near Subic Bay. Nearly 200 POWs died. The survivors were kept for five tortuous days on an abandoned tennis court, exposed to the tropical sun with little water, food or medical care .

On December 27, the men were packed aboard two freighters, the Enoura Maru and Brazil Maru to Formosa. The ship's holds were not cleaned of its previous cargo, horses and other livestock. Men picked through the animal waste looking for oats to eat. Although they arrived in Takao, Formosa on New Year's Day, they were not allowed to disembark, On January 9, planes from the USS Hornet again bombed the hellships. The Enoura Maru with Major Smothers aboard took direct hits. Days passed before the Japanese remove the dead or help the wounded. Four hundred or so were buried in shallow graves near the harbor's shore.

Badly wounded and suffering from the cold, starvation, and lack of medical care, Major Smothers was eventually taken to a Fukuoka #22 POW Camp administered by Sumitomo Mining to provide slave labor for one of its coal mines (the company is now part of Nippon Steel). At the Sumitomo camp medical care was poor or nonexistent during the historically cold winter of 1944/5.

On April 25, 1945, he was transported by stretcher from Fukuoka #22 to the Fukuoka City docks (Moji) for transport to Fusan, Korea [today's Busan, South Korea], and then on to Mukden, China. Some speculate that the Japanese were consolidating the American officers at Mukden to use as hostages. Smothers perished that night on the dock.

According to an oral history by British Lt. Geoffrey Pharoah Adams (available online through the Imperial War Museum. See Reel #11 with the key part of the story beginning at about 10 min 40 sec.), on April 25, 1945, he and a group of POWs were put aboard a ferry, but taken off around midnight after an air raid alarm. Adams and some 15 other comparatively healthy officers were tasked with taking off the ferry the American stretcher cases. Adams and his friend, British Lt. John Vincent Bowen, took an American Major (Smothers) off the ship. They and two of their friends from Fukuoka Camp #17 (Mitsui's Omuta coal mine), Americans Lt. Charles P. Christie, and 2nd Lt John Allen, who were also stretcher bearers, decided to stick together. "We carried the man off who was a Major, so emaciated and thin." Since they were the last off the ship the other prisoners were out of sight.

Those carrying the stretcher cases were told to lay down on the concrete beside the walls of a warehouse. It was very cold. The Major on the stretcher had a blanket over him. Because he said he felt so cold, the four men (Adams, Bowen, Christie, and Allen) laid down all around him, one on either side, one on the top, one across the bottom. "During the course of the night he died." "He just expired from hypothermia, from despair...I don't know, but he died anyway."

The next morning there was a bit of a row, because the man had died and upset the roll call figures. "We were ordered to take the dead man with us." "The Japan Japanese had handed us over to the new Japanese and we had to have the right count aboard the ferry. So we carried the poor Major back on board with us." The ship set sail. "Some of these people who had been sunk and who had had these terrible trials were hysterical." (Col. Ben Skardon, Clemson University alumnus and professor, corroborated this detail about the men being hysterical). After the ferry arrived at Pusan, Korea, "We got off the ship. We still had to take our stretcher with the Major off." Shortly, after roll call, they were told to leave him on the dock. Smothers had been assigned the Mukden POW Camp number of 2006 and appeared on the Mukden death roster with that number. There is no record indicating that his body ever left Fusan, Korea.

USS Hornet (CV-12) was awarded a Presidential Unit Citation for the its operations: January 3 – January 22, 1945 — Philippines, Formosa, China Sea, Ryukyu


You can read more about the Task Force 38 campaign in the new (February 28, 2023) book, South China Sea 1945: Task Force 38's bold carrier rampage in Formosa, Luzon, and Indochina (Air Campaign, 36) by Mark Lardas (Author), Irene Cano Rodríguez 96 pages.

See HERE for an interesting diary account of the USS Hornet during January 1945. An official Navy history is HERE.