TAIPEI, Taiwan — Robert Rosendahl was just 19 — too young in those days to drink a beer or cast a vote — when he was sent to Pacific theater in World War II. There, in that deadliest of the war’s arenas, he would see things that no man, let alone a boy, should ever see.
He had just graduated from high school in a small town in Minnesota. His parents couldn't afford to send him to college, so in 1941, he joined the army.
Soon after arriving in the Philippines, he was sent to the front during the Battle of Bataan. In that bloody struggle, American and Philippine forces tried to hold fast against the Japanese invasion of the Philippines — and failed.
More than 30 million soldiers and civilians were killed in the Pacific theater during the course of the war, compared with the 15 million to 20 million killed in Europe.
But remarkably, as the 75th anniversary of the end of the war in Asia approaches, on Saturday, Aug. 15, few remembrance ceremonies are planned, and it’s not because of COVID-19.
On each anniversary, there’s no return of veterans to the battlefields, as with D-Day celebrations in France. No gathering of national leaders. No bugles sounding taps above freshly manicured graveyards.
VJ Day, as the anniversary of the allied victory over Japan is called, receives far less attention than Victory in Europe, or VE Day, on May 8.
For one thing, the U.S. and China — allies then — are today increasingly bitter rivals for global economic primacy. And for its part, Japan, unlike Germany, has been reluctant to confront its wartime history.
But the 140,000 captured Allied military personnel, according to U.K.-based independent website Forces War Records — as well as the tens of thousands of civilians who were held as prisoners of war by the Japanese military — suffered some of the worst atrocities of the war.
Many did not survive the war or have died since. But the testimony of the remaining survivors, along with oral histories recorded by others before they died, remind us today both of man’s capacity for cruelty and for boundless courage.
‘People were dying left and right’
One of those taken prisoner was the Minnesota schoolboy Rosendahl.
He and tens of thousands of Americans and Filipinos were captured by the Japanese in the Battle of Bataan. They were forced to march more than 60 miles to prison camps in the Bataan Death March.
Thousands of Filipinos and hundreds of Americans died.
“If you didn’t march, they would shoot you,” Rosendahl said in an interview conducted before his death in February. The interview is part of the National World War II Museum’s digital oral history collection.
Eventually, Rosendahl reached a prison camp that was full of feces and so crowded that it lacked space for the prisoners to lie down.
“We had people who lost their mind and went hysteric,” he said. “It was a hellhole; people were dying left and right. The only duty was to bury 100 men a day.”
Later, he was sent to Japanese-occupied Manchuria, in northern China, to work as “a slave laborer,” he said, assembling machines in temperatures that dropped to 25 degrees below zero.
“The hardest part was getting over that winter of 1942 and ‘43. I developed beriberi and my legs were all swelled up … like a pair of rubber gloves full of water. It just kept creeping up on you, and if it got above your waistline, you couldn’t breathe.”
Beriberi, caused by a deficiency of vitamin B-1, affects the circulatory system and ultimately the heart.
‘Lost the will to live’
Such conditions were typical for POWs captured by Japan, according to Michael Hurst, a Taiwan-based Canadian historian and the founder and director of the Taiwan POW Camps Memorial Society. He has spent two decades finding all 16 of the POW camps in Taiwan — then a Japanese colony — and interviewing survivors about the conditions.
Hard labor was the rule, he said. The 4,300-plus POWs imprisoned in Taiwan worked in a copper mine, removed stones from a valley to make way for sugar cane, or dug a man-made lake.
Working in the mine was particularly damaging to their health.
“It was so hot that temperatures were well over 40 degrees (104 Fahrenheit) most of the time in some of the places, and other holes were very cold and the men got diphtheria and died,” Hurst said. “They had to slave away to extract copper out of this mine, and they were given so many cars of ore to fill in a day and so many holes to drill in a day. If they didn’t do that, they were beaten with mining hammers after work.”
The men were fed rice gruel or sweet potato tops. Their body weight usually dropped to half of what it had been before their capture.
In their diaries, the POWs wrote that they had to work even when they suffered from beriberi, which made their testicles swell to the size of soccer balls. Those deemed to be dying were denied medicine.
According to the National World War II Museum, 40 percent of the American military personnel held in Japanese camps died, compared to 1.2 percent in Europe.
Of the 27,465 Americans captured by the Japanese, 11,107 died.
“The men told me: ‘It’s easy to die; living day-to-day was the hard part,’” Hurst said. “Some men went into the sick hut and gave up. They would die in their sleep. They just had enough, lost the will to live.”
But even at risk of their lives, some of the prisoners worked to sabotage Japan’s war effort.
“When the two Japanese guards had a tea break, they would take the gears out of the machines and throw them in the concrete,” Rosendahl said, chuckling in referring to the prisoners. “The machines were just holes when we got through; they couldn’t be used.”
“They didn’t catch anybody, but they were awful mad about it, and they picked out 150 guys they thought had something to do with it and shipped them to Japan to work in a lead mine,” he added.
Besides POWs, Japan interned about 14,000 American civilians who lived in areas that became combat zones. Although the civilians were not treated as badly as the soldiers, their experiences still haunt them.
“I have had dreams that are stressful and disturbing,” said Curtis Brooks, now 91, in a phone interview from his home in Las Vegas. He was 13 in 1942 when he, his parents and his twin brother were put into the Santo Tomas internment camp outside Manila, which housed nearly 4,000 foreign expatriates.
“You woke up hungry, you spent all day hungry, you went to bed hungry,” Brooks said. Those who were sick received no treatment, he said, adding, “Those who tried to escape were executed.”
His father died from malnutrition, and later his mother was killed by artillery fired by the Japanese after the camp had been liberated and was run by Americans; the internees were still living there because it was not immediately safe for them to leave.
Japan surrendered on Aug. 15, 1945, after the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing 100,000 to 200,000 people.
“When word came that the Allies had won the war, the prisoners dropped to their knees and wept,” Hurst said. But not everyone survived the war’s final days.
Fourteen American airmen who’d been taken prisoner after their planes went down as they bombed Japanese bases in Taiwan were executed in the last days of the war. One was in his teens.
And Rosendahl said he and his fellow inmates narrowly escaped being massacred; they were rescued by six Americans soldiers who parachuted from a plane and told the Japanese the war was over.
“The next day, they had a loudspeaker and played music for us, new music we hadn’t heard for three and a half years,” Rosendahl said. “I and another guy went downtown and shot the lock off a Kirin Beer Brewery and … loaded up all the Kirin beer we could find and bought them back to camp.”
On returning home, many former POWs received little help in coping with the trauma they had experienced. They didn’t tell their loved ones, and their governments told them not to speak about their experience, to avoid questions about military strategies that resulted in the soldiers’ capture, Hurst said.
When the men tried to tell their families, their loved ones could not believe the horror stories they told them. Some former soldiers ended up in mental institutions, and some died by suicide, Hurst said. For others, the trauma ruined their marriages.
But many had the strength to return to their normal lives and raise families.
“They were the heroes of our lifetime,” Hurst said.
How VJ Day should be remembered
In Taiwan, Hurst’s POW Camps Memorial Society plans to hold a memorial ceremony on Saturday. But no government ceremony is planned for that day, even though the Republic of China (ROC), which is Taiwan's official name, fought Japan for years, preventing it from invading more countries. A small concert is organized by Taiwan’s army on Aug. 26 in commemoration of the 75th anniversary, but few tickets are available to the public.
WWII is a sensitive topic here because of the island’s history as a Japanese colony before the ROC's government relocated to the island after defeating Japan and losing mainland China to the communists four years later. Taiwan's current government is keen to have strong ties with the Japanese and would rather not highlight the uncomfortable truth that many Taiwanese fought on the side of Japan.
For other Asian countries, many were colonies at the time, and it was mainly the colonizers leading the war effort. Most also now want good ties with Japan.
But Hurst, former POWs and internees say VJ Day should still be celebrated because it liberated Taiwan and other parts of Asia.
They say it's important to learn history so to not repeat it.
“History has got a tremendous way of repeating itself,” Rosendahl said. “They said we won’t have any more wars since the atomic bomb, but how many wars have we had since the Second World War? We’ve had quite a few of them.”
Brooks, the 91-year-old survivor, still hopes against hope.
“Never let this happen again,” he said.