"I live a perfect life,” Lester Tenney told me. “I’ve been a very fortunate man.”
We were sitting in the sunshine on his patio on Mount Soledad. Betty, his wife of over 40 years, had served us coffee cake on china plates. A maid was vacuuming the rooms inside. I could hear the whack of tennis balls being hit on courts nearby. At 83, Tenney himself still plays doubles — craftily. “They call him ‘Cuisinart,’ because he slices everything,” said Betty.
But these trappings of the good life aren’t what Tenney meant when he said he has been lucky. He elaborated: “Number one, I’ve been able to move away psychologically from the problem. Number two, I don’t have any hatred in my heart any longer. I’ve been able to deal with it. And so I am a very free man. Many of my buddies are not. You talk to them, and they get like this” — he shook his clenched fists in front of his face — “ ‘I hate those bastards!’ But I don’t have that. So I’m a very fortunate person.”
Tenney wears two hearing aids. On the day we spoke, he was also wearing a yellow-knit polo shirt, gray slacks, and white shoes. He resembles a lot of prosperous men of his generation who can often be found dealing hands at bridge tables in La Jolla. Besides playing tennis, Tenney is known to play bridge. But his “problem,” as he calls it, sets him apart from most of his cohorts. In 1940, when the native Chicagoan joined the National Guard, he had expected to serve a single year with the 192nd Tank Battalion and be back to civilian life before he reached his 22nd birthday. It didn’t happen. He’s a survivor of the Bataan Death March and beyond — three and a half years in Japanese prison camps.
He’s an unusual veteran for another reason: he continues to fight — in court. He is suing the private Japanese company that forced him to perform slave labor during those years when he was a prisoner. Tenney v. Mitsui and similar suits — all of them filed in the last few years but still unresolved — have been called the last battle of World War II.
I worried beforehand that I would find it difficult to ask Tenney questions. I was in the middle of reading his autobiography, My Hitch in Hell, which contains many violent passages, like this one: “On the second day of the march, I saw a Japanese truck coming down the road. In the back of the truck were guards with long pieces of rope that they whipped toward us marching men. They tried to hit any prisoner who was not marching fast enough. They snapped a rope at one of the marchers on the outside of the column, caught him around his neck, and then pulled him toward the back of the truck. They dragged him for at least one hundred yards down the road. His body just twisted and turned; he rolled this way and that way, bumping along the gravel road until he was able to free himself from the whip. By then he looked like a side of beef. As he crawled on his hands and knees and slowly raised his bleeding body off of the road, he screamed at them, ‘You bastards! I’ll get even with you for this. I’ll live to pee on your graves.’ ”
Elsewhere, repeatedly, he writes of his own beatings and torture. For example: “I hung on the stretching rack for a day and a half, and when they let me down, it was only to start another inhumane act. They tore my clothes off and tied a piece of wet bamboo splice, like a string, around my testicles. Then they hanged me again for the balance of the day. As the sun became stronger the drying bamboo contracted, becoming tighter around my testicles.…”
It’s true that the book has many, less grim, even tender moments, since it is also a love story about Tenney and the proverbial girl he left behind, whom he had married shortly before shipping out. “The more I thought about my beloved wife the more I was determined to get home in one piece,” he writes. “I wanted to be back with Laura, to hold her in my arms, and to tell her how much I missed her. I had to get back. That was all there was to it.”
Still, I could only imagine a man whose predominant mood now must surely be dark. This idea was reinforced by books like Gavan Daws’s Prisoners of the Japanese in which I had read: “In the immediate postwar years, when Japanese war criminals were learning how to be prisoners, the POWs were having to relearn how to be free men, and it turned out to be a life sentence. Home was supposed to be perfect, exactly the way it used to be. But it was not, nothing like it, and a lot of men could not reconnect, body or soul.”
Daws describes “behaviors” of all sorts: “At home or out at a restaurant, if they saw someone leaving food on the plate they might be seized by the urge to shove it into his face, or her face.” Scrounging. Hoarding. Hating to stand in line, especially at a buffet. Touchiness. Jumpiness. Extreme sensitivity to sudden, loud noises. Becoming upset for weeks upon hearing a news report of someone trapped in a well or a cave-in. “If a POW did not have one of these behaviors he had another,” Daws writes, “and many men had more than one: private madnesses of all shapes and sizes. The best they could do was keep their most extreme and inexplicable weirdnesses to themselves.”
I had been reading other books besides Tenney’s, because I’d had only a vague notion of what the Bataan Death March was. I hadn’t known much about the mass surrender in the Philippines, which had caused it. And I’d had little idea of what had happened to the men who had become Japan’s prisoners, except that, sometime in the past, I’d seen the 1957 movie Bridge on the River Kwai and knew its whistled theme song. (In reality, Allied prisoners did build bridges in Burma to help move Japanese supplies and troops from Bangkok to Rangoon, and many of them died under the conditions.) I felt bad about my ignorance, and worried about it too. It didn’t seem enough of an excuse that most Americans are largely uninformed about that aspect of the war. As Tenney writes: “The bombing and strafing of Fort Stotsenburg and Clark Field within hours of the raid on Pearl Harbor went virtually unnoticed by the average person in the United States.” It was almost as if a September 12 had happened after September 11 and hadn’t made the evening news. Later, history books didn’t emphasize it. America’s first battle of the war had ended in defeat and a near-total breakdown of military command. Dozens of men, for example, refused to surrender and hid out in the jungles, where they formed guerrilla bands. (Tenney, after escaping from prison camp, briefly lived among them before being recaptured.) No wonder we preferred to play it down.