Monday, August 5, 2013

"My Hitch in Hell" by Lester I. Tenney (1995)

Today marks 68 years since the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. It is only fitting to post this review today in honor of all those who suffered at the hands of the Japanese during the war. You can debate it all you want to, but the bomb did shorten the war and save lives. And when you read this book you will realize that it was probably the only way to avoid taking Japan one house at a time.

Some people lament that the Japanese had already made overtures to sue for peace just before the bomb was dropped, and therefore the bomb was unnecessary. But, that line of reasoning falls flat when you take into consideration that the Japanese were also negotiating “peacefully” with us while their ships were steaming towards Pearl Harbor.

From the very first line of the foreword by Admiral James Stockdale; Professor Emeritus at Hoover Institution at Stanford University, and a former POW himself; this book rings with all the truth and horror of war and the human consequences it engenders. It is the story of a boy, gone off to fight for his country, who returns home to live a full and productive life. It’s not that his life was perfect; after the horrors which he had witnessed nothing could ever be perfect again; the real story here is how he coped with that burden, both at the time he was experiencing it, as well as in its aftermath.

Enlisting just after the first peacetime draft in American history, the author joined the National Guard in 1940, over a year before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He was determined to do his one year hitch and get it out of the way. He had no idea what the next 5 years held in store for him.

Stationed in the Philippine Islands at Clark Field, he was just in time for the infamous “Bataan Death March” to Camp O’Donnell, a distance of about 100 miles, which was the first prison camp in which he was interred. The brutality of the Japanese towards their prisoners began immediately, and with such unimagined cruelty, that it stretches the imagination to understand it.

Knowing he would not survive long in this environment, Mr. Tenney decided to set goals for himself in order to survive the war. He would focus on the present and only the immediate future in order to make it home someday. He had secretly married his girlfriend just before shipping out, and for the entire war, his wife did not know where he was. For the first few years she had no idea if he was dead or alive.

Escaping from the first prison camp was easier than one would expect, as the Japanese had no numbering system in place at the beginning. After his initial escape he served with some natives operating with the few Americans who had managed to form a guerilla group, fighting the Japanese in their own way, inflicting damage wherever they could, and in any way possible. Eventually, he was turned in by a local youngster who was starving and exchanged Mr. Tenney’s location for some rice. To his credit, the author holds the boy blameless for his actions, which would have severe consequences for himself.

After a second stint in Camp O’Donnell, the author is moved to a prison camp further inland, the infamous Camp Cabanatuan. There was no real hope of escaping this camp, as by now the Japanese had in place a number system, whereby the 5 men before you and the 5 men behind you would be killed if you did escape. So, in essence, escaping meant that you were condemning 9 other men to death for your decision.

After some time there he was among the prisoners who were shipped to Japan aboard freighters which were not identified as carrying POW’s. This meant that our submarines would sink the ships, not knowing that their own fellow countrymen were aboard. Japan had never signed the Geneva Convention and, as such, was not required to mark those ships. That was the excuse they used after the war to justify the barbaric treatment afforded our POW’s.

In Japan the author was assigned to work in the coal mines about 35 miles from Nagasaki, the site of the second atomic bomb drop in August 1945. The prisoners were actually able to see the mushroom cloud from their location. But before that day, they had to go through 3 and a half years of hell working in the coal mines with no proper equipment and no medical treatment to speak of.

The description of life in the POW barracks reads like James Clavell’s “King Rat”, with the prisoners trading and bargaining anything they could in order to survive. They even managed to put on a show, a sort of Ziegfeld Follies, to amuse themselves and keep sane. The author’s description of these shows and the help he received from some of the men who were homosexual is very touching, as he was initially disgusted by these men, but was able to overcome that feeling while working with them. This experience changed his entire view about homosexuality, making him realize that we are all human beings, something which is easy to forget when you are being treated like an animal.

Some of the prisoners would actually pay someone to break their hand in order to get a few days off from the coal minds. There were “breakers” in camp who, for some rice or cigarettes, would break whatever bone you wanted. These men were not considered to be evil in any way. They were merely performing a job for a set fee. Faking skin ulcers on the leg was another way to avoid work, and the author expertly describes how this is accomplished. I have stored this knowledge away for future use should it ever become necessary.
A breathtaking narrative of almost 5 years in hell, this book is a valuable record of what it was like to be interred by the Japanese during the war. It is also the story of one man’s journey into the darkness, and how the lessons he learned from his parents about integrity and hope, gave him the will to survive.

After his return home in 1945 the book really becomes almost heartbreaking, as the author faces the many struggles to regain the life he once knew, the least of which was to get back with his wife Laura. His ordeal in the Japanese coal mines fades into the past as he focuses on regaining his health, and his wife, as well as to find a place in the world for which he had endured so much. I am happy to report that, unsurprisingly, Mr. Tenney went on to achieve those goals, and much more with his life.

This is an extraordinary record of the experiences which thousands of men went through at the hands of the Japanese during the war. It is also the remarkable story of one man’s will to survive it.

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