Museum to Honor Victims of WW II Prison Camp

After Japan took the Philippines in World War II, more than 2,000 U.S. and allied troops were held in prison camp in Shenyang, China. Their detention center is being made into a museum.

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This next report is an echo of one of America's worst military defeats. It was Japan's capture of the American-held Philippines during World War II. More than 2,000 American and Allied soldiers captured in the Philippines were taken to a prison camp in northeast China where they spent the rest of the war. And China has now turned that prison camp into a museum where some of the tourists recently included a group of veterans and their families.

NPR's Anthony Kuhn has their story from Beijing.

ANTHONY KUHN: In 1942, Robert Brown was part of an Air Force unit defending the Philippines' Bataan peninsula against the Japanese army. Now in his early 80s, Brown finds himself sitting down to a meal of Peking duck in a luxury hotel. He points to a medallion on his Western tie.

Mr. ROBERT BROWN (War Veteran): It says the battling bastards of Bataan, no mama, no papa, no Uncle Sam.

KUHN: No aunts, no uncles, no cousins, no nieces, no pills, no planes, no artillery pieces, and nobody gives a damn - went the soldier's grim ditty.

To this day, Brown and other Bataan veterans feel betrayed by the U.S. government. They say the administration of President Franklin Roosevelt claimed to be sending help while in fact it had written off the Philippines as a lost cause and was saving its resources to defend Britain and Australia. Brown mentions then-Secretary of State Henry Stimson.

Mr. BROWN: And he was asked the question - well, what about the men in Philippine Islands? And his response was, some men have to die. And we didn't know that, but I know - I know it now. We were sacrificed.

KUHN: After being captured, Brown survived the Bataan Death March in which Japanese troops, heat, hunger and disease killed thousands of U.S. and Filipino troops on a forced march to prison camps. More of the men died en route from the tropics to their final destination in China's frigid northeast.

It was a Japanese prison camp in Shenyang, the city formerly known as Mukden. Former Army Air Corps soldier Wayne Miller remembers one of the many acts of desperation that helped him survive three and a half brutal years at the camp.

Mr. WAYNE MILLER (World War II Veteran): I stole a fish, but you didn't call it stealing then. You knew you had to have it, for health reasons. But they caught me, so I took a beating. Then later on I went back to the barracks, and we still had heat in these little stoves, and I threw it on top of there. Oh, that fish tasted good.

KUHN: Miller and the other survivors were not liberated until the war ended in 1945. He said he was of two minds about coming back to visit.

Mr. MILLER: I wanted to see the old camp again. I wanted to, and I still didn't want to because I cry very easy. I'm a very - a sentimentalist.

KUHN: The visit was organized by a Washington, D.C.-based group called the Truth Council for World War II in Asia. They made a video of the visit complete with heroic music.

(Soundbite of music)

KUHN: For the POWs' children who came along, it was a voyage of discovery. It helped Mississippi native Pat Saddler(ph) understand her father better, three years after his death.

Ms. PAT SADDLER (POW's Daughter): This answers a lot of our questions as to why he exploded so often for what we would consider no reason and why he became more and more angry as the years went on. And that's - that was one of the reasons I came.

KUHN: Saddler says her father talked with fellow POWs about his experiences, but seldom with his own family.

Ms. SADLER: He was very angry about the way he was treated in camp. He was very angry about the reason that he became a POW and that he was surrendered. It wasn't that he surrendered; it was that he was surrendered unto these Japanese to keep him a POW.

KUHN: Sheldon Sembler(ph) helps to organize reunions for the POWs. He says that as their numbers dwindle, the remaining men just want the apology they never received from the Japanese for the way they were treated. And they want to be recognized by fellow Americans, few of whom know what they went through.

Mr. SHELDON SEMBLER: You've probably heard the expression Remember the Alamo. Well, what we're trying to tell people is that we want people to remember Bataan, Corregidor. And now we can say, hey, remember Mukden? These guys have survived, but they've got to tell their story.

KUHN: Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.

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