Japanese students visit World War II POW museum

Ed Jackfert of Wellsburg related his experiences as a prisoner of war to Professor Kimio Yakushiji and several students from Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto, Japan, and others Friday during a visit to the National American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor Museum, which Jackfert helped to launch in Wellsburg. — Warren Scott

WELLSBURG — When Ed Jackfert of Wellsburg worked with his wife, Henrietta, to create an exhibit at the Brooke County Public Library relating the experiences of American prisoners of war in Japan, he hoped it would educate others about an often-overlooked chapter of World War II.

That goal was accomplished on an international level with a visit Friday by Professor Kimio Yakushiji and several students from Ritsumeikan University of Kyoto, Japan, to the museum that has grown from that exhibit.

The National American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor Museum, Education and Research Center is believed to contain the largest collection of materials related to the experiences of 70,000 Americans and Filipinos forced to walk the Bataan Death March as well as those relating to many other Allied troops captured while defending the Philippine Islands against Japanese invasion.

Many didn’t survive the 65-mile march because they succumbed to disease, starvation and the extreme heat or were killed by their captors; while others went on to work in prison camps in similar conditions.

Jackfert said he learned, during a visit to another Japanese university in recent years, that many students didn’t know about the POWs. And just as that aspect of the war was left out of many American textbooks, the general public in Japan also wasn’t aware.

“People in Japan didn’t know what was going on,” Jackfert said.

Yakushiji said having been born in 1950, his and subsequent generations know less and less about the war, something that should be rectified. He said the group “came to know the truth of what happened.”

“It’s very important for those who are still alive to tell their experiences,” he said later.

In addition to Jackfert, the visitors heard from Joe Vater Jr., a member of the museum board, whose late father Joe Sr., formerly of McKees Rocks, Pa. sought help for fellow POWs who suffered from heart disease, neurological disease and other conditions linked to their wartime experience.

“My dad weighed 100 pounds when he was liberated,” Vater said, adding that while he gained weight, other health problems surfaced.

Jackfert showed the group the camera Vater acquired following his liberation. The elder Vader traded a Japanese saber for the camera, which is displayed at the museum with some of the hundreds of photos he took of fellow POWs and camps where they had been imprisoned.

The group also heard from Chris Abraham of Butler, Pa., the widow of Abie Abraham, a Bataan Death March survivor who was recruited to retrace the route while recovering the remains of fallen soldiers so they could be returned to their families.

“He said it was the hardest thing for him because he knew these people from life,” said Abraham.

“But he said he had to do it,” she said, adding her late husband recounted his experiences in two books.

The visit was filmed by a crew from the Japanese public broadcasting system’s New York office.

It wasn’t the first time a Japanese film crew has visited the museum. Last summer, a film crew from TV Osaka, a major Japanese television network, came to film artifacts and review POW diaries for a film on Ensign Kauzo Sakamaki, the first Japanese POW captured by the Americans.

Richard Lizza, president of the museum’s board, noted the museum also was visited last summer by officials from Mitsubishi Materials who, during the same visit to the U.S., offered an apology for the harsh conditions experienced by hundreds of American POWs forced to work for the company’s plants and mines.

“That was an enormous step for them to do that,” said Lizza, adding the company donated $50,000 that has been used to expand the museum’s online presence, which includes a website and Facebook page, and to purchase materials for preserving the museum’s artifacts.

The professor and students read letters and journals in which U.S. servicemen described their experiences at war and in POW camps. They wore rubber gloves to prevent the decades-old, brittle paper from tearing.

Jim Brockman, the museum’s executive director, noted the writings also can be accessed online at http://philippine-defenders.lib.wv.us/

Comments by Yakushiji and Jackfert revealed the two share another goal: To ease international relations and urge nations not to resort to war to settle differences.

Yakushiji said he is pleased to have seen a movement for peace arise in Japan since 1992. He was involved in the establishment of the Kyoto Museum for World Peace, which conveys the problems of war and arms races, and served on a United Nations committee working against the secret abduction and imprisonment of people by state officials in various countries.

“The consequences of war are death and destruction,” Jackfert told the visitors and local guests. He said during the war he witnessed 100,000 people killed and 17 square miles of Tokyo burned to the ground in one night.

Jackfert added that in addition to about 1,115 American POWs who died in Japan, 50,000 to 60,000 Japanese POWs died in camps operated by the Soviet Union during the war.

He said there were more than 21 million military casualties and a loss of about $588 billion from World War I and more than 24 million military casualties and a loss of about $4.8 trillion from World War II.

“There are no winners in war,” Jackfert said.

(Scott can be contacted at wscott@heraldstaronline.com.)