Japan's foreign minister apologized Monday for the suffering of a group of former World War II prisoners of war visiting from the United States and said they were treated inhumanely.
The six POWs, their relatives and the daughters of two men who died are the first group of U.S. POWs to visit Japan with government sponsorship, though groups from other countries have been invited previously.
"I offer my deep, heartfelt apology for the inhuman treatment you suffered," Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada told the group.
One of the former POWs, 90-year-old Lester Tenney, welcomed the apology.
Tenney was one of the Americans forced to surrender on April 9, 1942 after a four-month battle. The Japanese military ordered the 78,000 prisoners of war — 12,000 Americans and 66,000 Filipinos — to walk from the Bataan peninsula on the Philippine island of Luzon to a prison camp.
As many as 11,000 died during what became known as the Bataan Death March.
"When you have to watch your own friends get killed and you have to stand there and can't do a thing, it is awful," Tenney told The Associated Press. "It stays with you forever."
Tenney recounted the horrors during his three years as a POW: Working 12-hour days in a coal mine, barely surviving on three small bowls of rice a day. Medical conditions so dire an American medic amputated limbs with a steak knife, without anesthetics and men died in droves from disease.
Tenney also recalled watching as a Japanese guard order two Americans to bury a malaria-stricken mate alive because he was too weak to stand. When they refused, the guard shot one dead. The next Americans pulled from the line buried both soldiers — one dead, one alive and screaming.
Japan surrendered in 1945 after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Japanese leaders have apologized for the country's militarist past many times, but the government contends that all reparations issues were settled by treaties after the war.
Japanese courts have also ruled that reparations issues must be dealt with on a country-to-country basis, but cases challenging that are pending in several courts.
After a short time in Tokyo, each POW will travel to a city of his choice. Some will visit the factories, docks or mines where they worked.
'Hoping we will die off'
Despite the apology, Tenney said he still seeks recognition from the private companies that "used and abused" prisoners in their mines and factories, often under brutal conditions.
"At no time have we gotten from these private companies just a letter," Tenney said. "These private companies have kept quiet for 65 years. It is an insult, because by their keeping quiet they are hoping we will die off."
The companies have had no comment on the visit.
After enduring the Bataan Death March, Tenney was brought to Japan and forced to work for Mitsui Mining Co. — now Nippon Coke and Engineering Co. The company has ignored his requests to meet, and he said he does not plan to visit the site of his forced labor.
Tenney and his wife, Betty, will instead visit the grave of a Japanese man in Matsuyama who stayed with them as an exchange student in San Diego, California, in 1968 and became a close friend. The Tenneys went to Japan for the man's wedding in 1988 and joined the newlyweds on their honeymoon.
Tenney taught accounting and finance at San Diego State and Arizona State universities after the war. He now resides in San Diego.