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Lester Tenney

But my fears and worries about what Tenney would be like were unfounded. Even before I met him, he put me at ease in our initial phone call with his wisecracking humor. (“You want to meet me early, you say? How about 6:00 a.m.?”) I was also relieved to learn, when I called the Tenney household again, a few days before our appointment (at 9:00 a.m., not 6:00), that he wasn’t home because he was attending a magic show at the Civic Center. Anyone who enjoys magic can’t be morose.

By then, I had finished his book, which, mirabile dictu, concludes on a nearly joyful note, with a friendship that he and Betty make with a Japanese exchange student, resulting in a trip to Japan for the student’s wedding, and with Tenney’s statement that, although he once did hate the Japanese guards who treated him so cruelly, he has never hated the Japanese as a people. And I had read more generally about what had happened to men, like Tenney, who had worked in coal mines and steel mills and at shipyards during their imprisonment. Just like those who had worked on the Burma-Siam Railroad — an assignment that the River Kwai shamelessly prettied up — many thousands of them died. Those who did survive were brutalized, malnourished, and subjected to diseases from which many of them never recovered. The Japanese had signed but never ratified the terms of the Geneva Convention, the international agreement of 1929 that had defined the humane treatment of prisoners of war. As many historians have written, the Japanese didn’t accept the Western concept of honorable surrender. Few Japanese soldiers would let themselves be taken as prisoners: they preferred suicide. It amazed the Japanese when American prisoners wanted to contact their families. Wouldn’t the folks back home be ashamed of them?

Add to that the Japanese economic situation: their own people were suffering from food shortages. How could they feed so many prisoners (320,000 of all nations taken in six months)? Well, if they had to feed them, even as minimally as they did, they might as well get some work out of them.

Lester Tenney’s POW correspondence card

Tenney worked in coal mines on an island about 35 miles east of a not-yet-famous city named Nagasaki. The mines belonged to Mitsui. “The Japanese guards marched us [to the mines], a distance of about three miles [from the barracks], and then turned us over to civilians for the actual work in the mines,” he writes in My Hitch in Hell. “The shaft mine was underground. We had either to walk or ride down. Most of the time…we had to walk, carrying jackhammers with five-foot-long bits, shovels, axes, saws, hammers.…

“We experienced serious accidents that cost many of our men their lives, an arm or leg, and in a few cases, broken backs. Many injuries, often fatal, were caused when the ceiling collapsed in what was known as sidewall cave-ins. It made no difference how many accidents we had, however, the work had to go on.…

“If we performed the way we were supposed to, the Japanese did not beat us. If we goofed off, however, then we could expect the consequences. Of course, this basic premise did not follow any type of pattern. We were beaten for any reason the Japanese civilians wanted. If their food was in short supply, if the Americans bombed a Japanese city, or if the supervisors wanted more coal that day than was produced, they beat us. We quickly found out that there was no need for an excuse; we were punished anytime the Japanese wanted to vent their anger and frustration.”

As Tenney led the way to the patio on the morning of our meeting, I watched to see if he had a limp, since I knew from the book that one of his hips had been severely injured. I couldn’t tell. As we sat down, I looked at his fingernails. The Japanese had shoved small pieces of dried bamboo under them, then set the bamboo on fire. They were nicely filed and shaped.

Did he have any lasting ill effects from his ordeal? I asked him.

“Yeah, I’m crazy,” he said. “But you know what? You only have permanent disabilities if you think about them. If you don’t think about them, you don’t have any. Forget about it. The things I can’t do, I don’t even think about. That’s my way. But I don’t have any permanent disabilities, no.”

“Well, your stomach isn’t right,” Betty said gently, “and your back isn’t right — ”

“And my head isn’t right. And my left arm isn’t right. So what?” said Tenney, whose manner is often brash, but ultimately endearing, like that of the old dog who barks and growls but can’t keep his tail from wagging at the same time. “I turn off a lot of things. Last week, I had to have a root canal, and I don’t take Novocain. I don’t need it. I just sit in the chair and I say, ‘Okay, wake me up when it’s over. I’m just going to lie here and forget everything. Just go ahead.’ And my mind goes to a complete blank. Bingo! It’s what you can feel up here. I did that in prison camp. If you can’t do that in prison camp, you die. You know? It’s the same thing.”

And yet Tenney hasn’t forgotten the experience. (“I have a very, very keen memory of what happened,” he told me, “so it was very easy for me to sit down and write [my book].”) The pending lawsuit is evidence enough of that. What, I wondered, did he hope to gain from it?

“For me, this isn’t about money,” he said, and the statement must be taken literally, since the man is a retired professor of finance. (He taught at Arizona State University until 1983. For four years, in the 1960s, he taught at San Diego State University.) “I say what I’m about to tell you without trying to be highfalutin. But if they were to award me $10 million tomorrow, it would not change my lifestyle one bit. I’m not going to buy a more pretentious house. I adore what I have. I have two cars. I can’t use more than two cars. I have 16 suits. I can’t use more than 16 suits. I have 25 sport jackets. I can’t use any more. I have,” he went on hyperbolically, “150 pairs of slacks. You understand what I’m saying? It’s not going to change my lifestyle. People say, ‘All you want is the money. Why don’t you come clean and just say so?’ Well, that’s so full of BS. Not that I’m not entitled to the money! You know, when you think about what I’m entitled to — and I say ‘entitled.’ What I may be able to get is different. But what I think I’m entitled to is pay for work that I performed. But that still isn’t really what this is all about. This is about respectability. It’s about responsibility. It’s about dignity.”

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